Aziz rebutts ’ratbag con’ claim

Jim Penman at a business breakfast in 2014. 116732_08 Picture: STEWART CHAMBERS

By Cam Lucadou-Wells

Jim’s Mowing founder Jim Penman paid more than $12,000 to Casey ex-mayor Sam Aziz to help ‘take over’ Yarra Ranges Council, IBAC has heard.

Mr Aziz told the Operation Sandon inquiry on 24 November that he was on a $1000-plus-GST-a-month retainer for more than a year to advise on installing a like-minded group of councillors in 2020.

Mr Penman was happy to spend between $80,000-$100,000 on the election campaign, Mr Aziz told the inquiry.

“I said to him that the best way to go … is for good quality candidates to actually undertake their own fundraising,” Mr Aziz said.

“That way they’ve got a stake in the campaign.”

Mr Aziz restated that he wasn’t aware of allegedly corrupt developer John Woodman paying about $90,000 towards Mr Aziz’s centrally-managed election campaign for about 20 candidates in Casey in 2016.

He also denied that the candidates were chosen for their perceived support of Mr Woodman’s push to rezone industrial land in Cranbourne West – otherwise known as Amendment C219.

Mr Aziz couldn’t recall whether he told the proposed Yarra Ranges campaign manager Janet Halsall that Mr Penman would finance the entire campaign like “we’ve had campaigns in Casey”.

“It was different with Mr Penman because he was looking at putting wholesale funds up to support a number of candidates,” he told the inquiry.

“But when it came to Casey, because the campaigns were hotly contested, I focused on the strategy.

“So however the funds were raised was not something that I got involved in.”

Mr Aziz had told the inquiry he was an “expert” in getting candidates elected to council.

He was approached by Mr Penman who was “very frustrated” with the council’s administration, he said.

He was unaware at the time of Mr Penman’s plans for a sporting complex reportedly being rebuffed by Yarra Ranges Council.

At the inquiry, Mr Aziz sought to correct Mr Penman’s reported claims about him in an “absolutely abhorrent” media interview.

“I don’t know how he could get the impression that I was a disgusting ratbag who conned him when that was never the nature of our interactions,” Mr Aziz said.

“I’ve actually obliged with everything he asked me to do.”

He denied Mr Penman’s allegation that Mr Aziz was paid $1000-a-week. The retainer was $1000-a-month plus GST.

Mr Aziz’s “assignment” was interrupted by an overseas travel break. “I stopped billing him from that point forward”.

Mr Penman wanted to consult with Mr Aziz on other projects such as a “Jim’s Bank”, and invited him on the Jim’s Group board, Mr Aziz told the inquiry.

“He was clearly happy with the work and services I was providing him.”

Mr Aziz had bought a “family franchise” from Jim’s Group. He later “got out” of it because the business model “wasn’t working for us”.

The pair were introduced by Mr Aziz’s “friend” and then-Jim’s Group chief executive Tino Grossi.

In 2016, Mr Aziz instigated an election campaign to elect like-minded councillors on Casey Council.

He enlisted Casey ex-mayor Janet Halsall to manage the re-election campaigns of Mr Aziz, Geoff Ablett, Damien Rosario, Wayne Smith and Amanda Stapledon, he said.

A new candidate – whose name has been suppressed by the inquiry – was also successfully elected.

Mr Woodman and Ms Wreford have told IBAC that Mr Woodman bankrolled the Casey election campaign with between $50,000 and $90,000.

Candidates were allegedly supported on whether they were “friendly” towards Mr Woodman’s push for Amendment C219.

False invoices for the campaign were allegedly funnelled through Ms Halsall’s mattress shop.

According to Ms Wreford, Mr Aziz pitched the scheme to Mr Woodman over lunch at a Chinese restaurant in Dandenong.

Mr Aziz told IBAC that Mr Woodman and Ms Wreford weren’t “decision makers” on the campaign.

“I supported people that Mr Woodman didn’t even know were coming forward to contest the election.

“He was not consulted about the candidates.”

Mr Aziz said he organised “strategy and policy that they put forward” and oversaw pamphlet designs.

Every candidate was responsible for their own campaign expenses. All held a fundraiser, he said.