By Cam Lucadou-Wells
A property group director says a letter describing ex-Casey councillor Sam Aziz feeling “compelled” to owe him a favour was a “poor choice of words”.
In June 2013, Andrew Nehme wrote to Action Group’s Kuwait-based owner Sheikh Mubarak Al-Sabah about Action’s desire to buy the freehold for the Casey Leisure Centre from Casey Council.
Mr Aziz “feels compelled to respond with a favour to me”, he told the sheikh.
This was due to Mr Nehme putting Mr Aziz’s then wife and dentist 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.
At the time, Mr Aziz would seek councillors’ support for the sale in a “timely manner”, the email stated.
“I am working closely with the deputy mayor, Mr Aziz, on procuring a successful outcome to purchase the freehold.”
At the IBAC hearing on 9 December, Mr Nehme said he’d offered “such an irrelevant help” to the dental business.
“It wasn’t a high priority, it was just putting two people together.
“I don’t know whether they got it or not.”
Mr Nehme denied IBAC Commissioner Robert Redlich’s assertion that ‘I’m putting him to the test because he owes me’.
“I probably shouldn’t have said in my email to Sheikh that Mr Aziz feels compelled,” Mr Nehme said.
“That was from me, not from him.
“I will say that it’s poorly worded on my part… Not a lie (to Sheik) just a poor choice of words.”
Mr Nehme said he “embellished” when writing about putting Mr Aziz “to the test”.
“That would have been … tongue in cheek,” Mr Nehme told IBAC.
“Which is very typical of me with the Sheik. We put everyone to the test.
“Again poor choice of words… on my part.
“There was no obligation from Mr Aziz.”
According to Mr Nehme’s letter, Mr Aziz met with Mr Nehme.
Three weeks later Cr Aziz raised a council motion to seek councillors’ support for the sale of the lifestyle centre, Mr Nehme wrote.
“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’.”
At IBAC, Mr Nehme said he told Mr Aziz that “we would like to buy the freehold” prior to the council motion.
At the time, he and Mr Aziz were in the “early stages of friendship”.
On 17 November, Mr Aziz told IBAC he had no relationship with Mr Nehme at the time nor during the sale in 2016.
Later he equivocated, saying the pair may have been friends at the point of sale.
“I don’t know exactly the moment when you can call us friends.”
On 9 December, Mr Redlich said Mr Aziz had also given private evidence saying the pair met in 2007, developed a “strong friendship” that meant Mr Aziz had to “professionally distance” himself from Mr Nehme.
Mr Aziz had told the public inquiry the “favour” was “definitely an overstatement”.
“There was no expectation that there will be a return favour,” Mr Aziz said.
“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.”
In 2014, Mr Aziz had railed against the council commissioning a KMPG interim report that eventually recommended not selling off the site, IBAC heard.
Mr Aziz 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.
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.”