By Cam Lucadou-Wells
Casey ex-mayor Sam Aziz has been accused of taking a bribe linked to the council’s $20 million sell off of the Casey Lifestyle Centre in the Fountain Gate precinct.
Mr Aziz was grilled at the IBAC Operation Sandon inquiry over his support for the sale over several years and an alleged “sham” $251,000 loan from his “friend” Andrew Nehme.
Mr Nehme is director of property investor company Action Group Australia – a subsidiary of a Kuwait-based firm controlled by Sheikh Mubarak Al-Sabah.
After some resistance, the council sold the 4-hectare Casey Lifestyle Centre to Action Group for $28 million in 2016.
Counsel assisting IBAC Michael Tovey said Mr Aziz was given the $251,000 “corrupt” payment for assisting Mr Nehme with the sale.
Mr Aziz replied: “Totally incorrect, and the removal that I had from the (tender) process proves that in itself.
“It is a process that you do not want to understand because you want to incriminate me no matter what.
“I had no involvement in the sale process. There was no corrupt payment from Mr Nehme.”
In 2013, Mr Aziz raised a council motion initiating the sell-off of the lifestyle centre site by public tender.
“I supported that because that was a good policy initiative”.
In June 2013, Mr Nehme wrote to Sheik Mubarak telling him that then-deputy mayor Aziz would pursue the sale in a “timely manner”.
“I mentioned to him that the market review was in August 2013 and he responded with ‘let’s try and get this finalised before then’.”
Mr Aziz “feels compelled to respond with a favour to me” due to Mr Nehme helping Mr Aziz’s then wife and dentist.
Mr Nehme had put her in contact with a health insurance provider, helping her become a Medibank-preferred provider, the inquiry heard.
“So let’s put him to the test”, Mr Nehme wrote.
Mr Aziz told the inquiry the “favour” was “definitely an overstatement”. He said he had no relationship with Mr Nehme at the time but they’d become friends in 2017.
“There was no expectation that there will be a return favour.
“The process was going to be a long and highly regulated exercise on the part of the City of Casey and I have no power to compel or force the sale of the property.”
At the inquiry, Mr Aziz said he didn’t know that Action Group had applied to buy the site until the “secretive” tender process ended.
“Because the process was done through a competitive tender I wasn’t sure if he was going to be a participant.
“I had a suspicion he would be because he told me that that’s what they wanted to do.
“It was done at total arm’s length from the political council, for obvious reasons.”
Mr Aziz didn’t become friends with Mr Nehme until after the sale, he said.
On 29 September 2016, two months after the sale’s approval, Mr Nehme transferred $21,000 into Mr Aziz’s then-wife’s account.
Mr Aziz said he couldn’t recall the transfer.
“The $21,000 is a total mystery to me.”
In October and November, a $230,000 loan from Mr Nehme was paid into the same account in three instalments – according to an affidavit signed by Mr Nehme as part of Mr Aziz’s divorce proceedings.
The funds were to pay off a loan for dental surgery equipment, as well as share market losses and completion costs of a property development, Mr Aziz said.
Mr Tovey asserted $214,000 was instead paid on a mortgage against the Aziz family home in Moondarra Drive, Berwick, $10,000 on his then-wife’s credit card and $3000 on a mortgage for a property in Officer.
He accused Mr Aziz that it was part of a “total fabrication to defraud your wife of $230,000”
“That $230,000 had been paid to you as a bribe?”
Mr Aziz said: “Absolutely not. That is the most ridiculous assertion I’ve heard so far.”
He said the loan restored the mortgages, which had been drawn down to pay off the debts such as dental equipment.
He told the inquiry he had been in “dire financial straits” with $18,000 of monthly commitments.
Mr Tovey said the $230,000 amount corresponded to the amount missing from the $600,000 cash that Mr Aziz lent to developer John Woodman.
Mr Aziz had told IBAC under oath that he lent Mr Woodman only $370,000.
In July 2013, Mr Nehme transferred $2200 to Mr Aziz in July 2013. It was for two tickets for a fundraiser for federal MP Jason Wood at Crown Casino, Mr Aziz told the inquiry.
In 2014, Mr Aziz had railed against the council commissioning a KMPG interim report in 2014 that eventually recommended not selling off the site.
Mr Aziz also went into bat for Mr Nehme after the council issued letters-of-demand and sought a bank guarantee against Action Group over the $400,000-plus rent arrears on the lifestyle centre site.
He then threatened to raise urgent business in closed council of “extremely disturbing” evidence of an officer’s alleged conduct in the matter.
Counsel assisting IBAC Michael Tovey said Mr Aziz was causing the officer who “stood up for the council point of view” a “world of harm and misery”.
“Where did your loyalties lie?”
“He was standing for his own point of view, that particular officer, from memory,” Mr Aziz said.
“And the council’s point of view is whatever the councillors decide by a majority vote at a council meeting.
“I was not going to do him harm. I was simply asking for the matters that were raised to be investigated by the CEO.”
AGA had leased the Casey Lifestyle Centre land from the council since 2005, subleasing it to large retailers.
It had been at loggerheads with the council over more than $400,000 rent arrears in 2014 and 2015.
After a tender process, AGA was approved as the “preferred purchaser” in a closed council meeting in July 2016.
The lifestyle centre site was sold for $19.755 million and a surplus council office site on Regency Drive for $8.855 million.
Within two years, AGA sought to sell off the lifestyle centre site for $70-million-plus.