Corrupt IBAC – Operation Sandon: Corruption watchdog IBAC cut Daniel Andrews’ name after draft

Daniel Andrews responds to IBAC’s Operation Sandon report at a press conference on Thursday. Picture: Jason Edwards

     Two references to Premier Daniel Andrews in the Victorian corruption watchdog’s draft Operation Sandon report – flagging concerns about political donors and lobbyists buying “privileged access” to senior politicians – were cut from the final findings.

The Australian can reveal the final paragraph in the section covering the Premier’s secret evidence to the five-year investigation was watered down between IBAC’s draft and final reports to remove any specific mention of the Premier.

Operation Sandon found property developer John Woodman and his associates “lobbied, cultivated, or financially supported state political candidates, political staff, MPs, and ministers” including the Premier, making hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations to each major party in pursuit of favourable treatment.

The watchdog presented evidence that Mr Woodman also funnelled more than $1m in secret payments to two Casey mayors – Labor-turned-Liberal-affiliated Sam Aziz and Liberal former VFL player Geoff Ablett – in return for favourable planning decisions in Melbourne’s outer southeast.

Responding to the tabling of the report on Thursday, Mr Andrews said he had acted “appropriately at all times”, and signalled his government would be willing to overhaul the state’s planning laws, stripping ­decision-making powers from councils.

Acting IBAC Commissioner Stephen Farrow said the watchdog – which is legally unable to make a finding of criminal conduct – would forward all evidence compiled over the course of the five-year investigation to the Office of Public Prosecutions, paving the way for the agency to pursue charges against multiple individuals.

In the draft report, the final paragraph explicitly refers to “Mr Andrews and Mr Woodman’s” attending political fundraising events as an example of how donations can secure access to decision makers. A second omitted reference ­related to a conversation between Mr Andrews and a Labor-aligned lobbyist associated with Mr Woodman and how this inter­action illustrates the significant role lobbyists may play and the “appearance of a sense of obligation” arising from the developer’s donations.

The draft paragraph states: “Mr Andrews and Mr Woodman’s attendance at such functions provides another illustration of the opportunities for privileged access at a ministerial level that Mr Woodman and his lobbyists were able to gain. It also reflects the ­importance of the substantial ­donations that Mr Woodman had made over time. The conversation between Mr Staindl (a Labor-aligned lobbyist) and Mr Andrews also illustrates the significant role that a lobbyist may play and the appearance of a sense of obligation from Mr Woodman’s financial contribution to the party.”

But in the final report, released on Thursday by the Independent Broad-based Anti-corruption Commission, the paragraph was significantly altered to read: “Mr Woodman and his associates’ ­engagements with senior members of the Victorian government provide another illustration of the opportunities for privileged access that they were able to gain in relation to planning matters. Their ­attempts to influence senior state politicians further demonstrate the importance of political ­donations and the significant role of lobbyists in helping to open doors to decision-makers.”

Responding to questions from The Australian, IBAC said the paragraph had been changed to remove Mr Andrews’ name but it was “common” for IBAC to make changes to draft reports. “The changes to this paragraph were because the point being made was not limited to the Premier, but also referred to other senior members of the state government,” an IBAC spokesperson said.

IBAC said it was part of its natural justice process that witnesses named in draft reports were given the opportunity to “provide comment or further evidence” but in this case the Premier made “no submissions on the draft Operation Sandon report”.

The Andrews government was approached for comment about the removal of the Premier’s name.

Mr Andrews said his cabinet would consider all 34 of the report’s recommendations and respond “in due course”, flagging the government’s “clear position … that the role of local councils in significant planning decisions should be reduced, and we will have more to say on this matter”.

Asked to characterise his relationship with Mr Woodman in the face of findings that the pair had met repeatedly at Labor fundraisers over many years, and even attended an intimate lunch in 2017 for which the property developer paid $10,000 to the ALP, the Premier said: “I don’t have a relationship with him. I’m not sure when I first met him, but I can tell you I haven’t seen him for a long time.”

In an interview last year, Mr Woodman said he had known the Premier “since he had pimples on his face”.

“I don’t know what my complexion looked like at the time, or when it was,” Mr Andrews said when quizzed over Mr Woodman’s recollection.

The Premier seized on the fact that Operation Sandon had not made any official adverse findings against him.

The report goes to a tapped phone call between Mr Woodman and his lobbyist Phil Staindl in which the pair discussed a conversation Mr Staindl had conducted with Mr Andrews days earlier, at a February 2019 Labor Party function. Mr Staindl told Mr Woodman that Mr Andrews had described a journalist pursuing the developer over corruption allegations as an “arsehole” and asked him to apologise to Mr Woodman for the planning minister’s deferral of the government’s decision over an amendment that stood to make Mr Woodman millions.

Mr Staindl also told Mr Woodman that Mr Andrews had requested the property developer’s phone number.

Mr Andrews disputed Mr Staindl’s recollection in his evidence to IBAC, but the corruption watchdog found that the “general tenor” of the conversation “was as Mr Staindl described”.

Asked to respond to the fact that the watchdog appeared to prefer the lobbyist’s version of events over his, Mr Andrews ­reiterated that no adverse findings had been made against him.

Mr Farrow defended the watchdog’s decision to examine Mr Andrews in private, despite conducting 40 days of public examinations of more than 20 other witnesses.

The acting commissioner cited four criteria which had to be met under legislation governing who could be examined publicly.

“Public interest might be one (criterion), but there’s also the extent to which the question relates to serious or systemic corrupt ­conduct, and that depends on the particular evidence that’s being examined in the course of that examination,” Mr Farrow said.

Amid findings from IBAC that the Liberal Party had received even more cash in donations from Mr Woodman than Labor did, Opposition Leader John Pesutto seized on the watchdog’s preference for Mr Staindl’s evidence over the Premier’s.

“Put simply, IBAC rejected the evidence of Victoria’s most senior political figure and preferred the account of a lobbyist,” Mr Pesutto said.


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