ICAC finds former Canterbury City Council councillors and senior staff corrupt, recommends tighter planning safeguards in NSW
Monday 22 March 2021
The NSW Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) has found former Canterbury City Council councillors Michael Hawatt and Pierre Azzi, and then director of city planning Spiro Stavis, engaged in serious corrupt conduct by dishonestly and partially exercising their official functions through misusing their positions in relation to planning proposals and applications at the Council.
In its report released today, Investigation into the conduct of councillors of the former Canterbury City Council and others (Operation Dasha), the Commission also finds that the Council’s former general manager, Jim Montague, engaged in serious corrupt conduct by appointing Mr Stavis as director of city planning at the Council. Although Mr Montague believed Mr Stavis was not the most meritorious candidate for the position, he improperly allowed himself to be influenced by pressure from Mr Hawatt and Mr Azzi to make that appointment.
The serious corrupt conduct findings against Mr Hawatt and Mr Azzi occurred in relation to activities that occurred between 2014 and 2016. They included applying the improper pressure on Mr Montague described above to appoint Mr Stavis to the director city planning position, and showing Mr Stavis the job interview questions in advance, to help him secure that role so that they would be able to influence him in how he carried out its functions. They failed to disclose their relationships with developers when exercising their official functions to vote in favour of certain development applications and modifications to development consents. Mt Hawatt also misused his position as a councillor to act favourably in relation to development applications involving two properties in which his daughter and son-in-law had a pecuniary interest.
The Commission found that Mr Stavis’ corrupt conduct included misusing his position to influence the outcome of a development application for his neighbour’s property. He also influenced a consultant to prepare a report for a planning proposal for a development in Punchbowl to favour the developer’s interests, and removed material that was critical of that planning proposal from a draft report to the Council’s City Development Committee.
The report says that corrupt planning decisions at the Council were a consequence of both underlying integrity issues and poor controls, and a NSW planning system that lacks effective anti-corruption safeguards. Factors that facilitated the conduct included poor foundations for corruption prevention at the Council, including a poor “tone at the top” that led to the pursuit of developer interests by some senior staff and councillors, unsound recruitment practices and practices at the Council to appoint senior staff, the failure of the relevant NSW Government department to properly oversee the making and amendment of local environmental plans, and the weak regulation of lobbying in the local government sector.
The Commission has made 23 corruption prevention recommendations, including that the City of Canterbury Council (Canterbury and Bankstown councils were amalgamated in May 2016) ensures that it has a recruitment policy that applies to the appointment of senior staff, which is consistent with the relevant provisions of the Local Government Act 1993 (the LGA). The Commission also recommends that the NSW Government amends the Lobbying of Government Officials Act 2011 to ensure all provisions apply to local government and that the NSW Department of Planning, Industry and Environment (DPIE), following a reasonable period of consultation, issues guidelines under section 23 of the LGA to introduce measures to enhance transparency around the lobbying of councillors.
The DPIE should also prepare and, following a period of public consultation, make public new guidelines on varying development standards for councils that consider the criteria for assessing variations to development standards that are applicable to clause 4.6 of the Environmental Planning and Assessment Act 1979. The Commission also recommends that the DPIE establishes a clear process to ensure that guidelines for councils on varying developments are subject to regular review and can accommodate advice or changes arising from the NSW courts.
Where there has been corrupt conduct as defined in the Independent Commission Against Corruption Act 1988, the Commission recommends that the NSW Government reviews the State Records Act 1998 in relation to the appropriateness of: offence provisions, including where there has been a wilful failure to keep records required by the State Records Act; time limitation for the commencement of a prosecution for an offence; and penalties for offences.
The Commission seeks the advice of the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) on whether any prosecution should be commenced. The DPP determines whether any criminal charges can be laid, and conducts all prosecutions. The Commission is of the opinion that consideration should be given to obtaining the advice of the DPP with respect to the prosecution of Mr Hawatt, Mr Azzi, Mr Stavis, Charbel Demian, Daryl Maguire and Marwan Chanine for various offences.