Sunday, March 2, 2008

Allegations of sex and corruption take centre stage

INSIGHT: DOWN UNDER WITH JEFFREY FRANCIS

SENSATIONAL evidence of bribery and sex, including the confession of a former town planner to having sexual affairs with three property developers at the time when she was dealing with their multi-million-dollar development applications emerged at an anti-corruption watchdog inquiry in Sydney last week.

Shockingly, it was alleged that the 32-year-old town planner was on a “mission for sex” with successful businessmen.

There were also allegations of cronyism, the inappropriate appointment of a Labour heavyweight for a A$200,000-a-year job and city councillors allegedly receiving bribes from developers, some of whom have made political donations totalling A$7mil to the New South Wales Labour Party election campaign fund.

The scandal, with more disclosures expected, is threatening to engulf some senior Cabinet ministers of the state government, which is now in a state of siege from its serious political crisis and bureaucratic stuff-up.

These include the resignation of a minister because of stress a month after being cleared of allegations of domestic violence; another is on trial of 34 charges, including sex with underage boys, indecent assault and supplying heroin and cannabis; and four others are allegedly linked in some ways to the current scandal.

It is the second state in three weeks to be shaken by the fallout of widespread corruption in Australia.

The first was Victoria, where a “web of lies, petty jealousies and office politics” and allegations linking police to the murder of a prostitute and self-described vampire were part of the evidence in a report from the Office of Police Integrity last month.

Interestingly, these and the current revelations are the outcome of what seems to be all-out efforts by state governments to curb, if not stamp out, corruption and unacceptable behaviour in the public service nationwide.

Tough action

Angered by the damning evidence and with his political career at stake, NSW Premier Morris Iemma promised that “heads will roll” if any of his ministers, their staff members or officials of the state government was adversely involved in the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) investigations.

However, he sounded somewhat soft when he added: “The only thing that will be destroyed in this (inquiry) will be the careers of those, no matter who they are, who are found to have done the wrong thing.”

The inquiry was told that approvals for buildings worth A$130mil had been given despite the fact that some of the developments did not comply with rules and regulations of the Labour-controlled Wollongong Council.

These buildings, which had gone well beyond the limits of height and floor space ratio, were constructed about four years ago when Wollongong became the developers’ paradise after it had lost its status of “steel city” following the controversial closure of BHP steel mills.

During the inquiry, the council’s former town planner Beth Morgan, who had handled the applications, confessed that she had sex with three local developers, admitting that she met them regularly at a local kebab shop known as the “Table of Knowledge”.

In return for obtaining the approvals, the developers showered her with substantial gifts and cash, she claimed.

But one of the developers denied he and Morgan had intimate relationship even though she e-mailed a letter in which she wrote: “You’re a gorgeous, sexy, delectable, lovable Greek.”

The key figure in the scandal, however, is Joe Scimone, a former senior executive of the council and a Labour heavyweight. He was alleged to have played a critical role in raising donations from developers for Housing Minister Matt Brown and campaigned for Police Minister David Campbell.

The ICAC heard that Scimone, who also allegedly took part in obtaining approval for a developer’s project and later bought an apartment from him, was forced to resign amid allegations of sexually harassing several female staffers.

He then got a A$200,000 job in NSW Maritime, which was part of the portfolio of his long-time friend, Ports Minister Joe Tripodi. This appointment is now under scrutiny.

The ICAC is also investigating allegations that Scimone paid A$30,000 to a man impersonating as an ICAC officer to destroy incriminating documents that he had sexually assaulted a council staffer.

The premier, who defended Tripodi under the notion of presumption of innocence until proven guilty, gave an assurance that the minister would be sacked if the ICAC had any evidence against him.

And a secretly recorded telephone conversation, played at the inquiry, quoted the council’s former general manager Rod Oxley as telling property developer Frank Vellar he would assign one of the “more laterally thinking planners” to consider his application for “significant” development.

They then laughed about the “laterally” minded planner, but no name was mentioned.

But former planning director David Broyd claimed that the application was handed to Morgan whose records he described as “inadequate”.

He also said that council staff had often complained to him about Oxley’s allegedly improper involvement in planning decisions in favour of developers.

He and several planning staff resigned because of the untenable working relationship with Oxley.

Oxley, who has been with the council for 19 years before he resigned last year, admitted to knowingly breaching the council’s code of conduct by dining with Vellar alone, away from the council building, and not declaring a A$263 gift of wine he had received from the developer.

Although the inquiry is continuing, the fact of the matter is that it is basically about political donations from property developers.

Jeffrey Francis is editorial consultant, Australasia-Pacific Media

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