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ICAC finds corrupt conduct in $1-million scheme concerning Awabakal LALC land

Wednesday 12 October 2022

The NSW Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) has found that four individuals, including two public officials, engaged in corrupt conduct through a dishonest scheme involving the purported false sale and/or development of properties owned by the Awabakal Local Aboriginal Land Council (ALALC) that resulted in three of them deriving more than $1 million in benefits. 

The Commission’s report, Investigation into dealings involving Awabakal Local Aboriginal Land Council land (Operation Skyline), released today, examines the conduct of Nicholas Petroulis, solicitor Despina Bakis, former ALALC chairperson Debbie Dates and former deputy chairperson Richard Green, between 2014 and 2016, and their involvement in the scheme.

The scheme comprised Mr Petroulias falsely representing that a company he controlled, Gows Heat Pty Ltd (Gows), had an option to purchase ALALC properties that it could on-sell to another party. To provide credibility for this representation, Ms Bakis prepared false contractual documents between Gows and the ALALC; she also had an undeclared conflict of interest in that she was engaged as the solicitor for the ALALC, through her legal business, Knightsbridge North Lawyers, while also representing Gows. Mr Petroulias’ conduct included improperly altering ALALC board meeting minutes and participation in preparing the sham agreements.

Gows’ purported option was “sold” to a third party, the Sunshine Property Investment Group Pty Ltd (Sunshine), for more than $1 million. While Sunshine had been informed that the bulk of the money would go to the ALALC, all of the funds went to Mr Petroulias, Mr Green, and Ms Bakis. Mr Petroulias ultimately received over $600,000, and Mr Green and Ms Bakis received financial benefits totalling $244,000 and $179,000 respectively.

This “sale” breached multiple requirements of the Aboriginal Land Rights Act 1983 (the ALR Act). For example, the dealing did not have the approval of the NSW Aboriginal Land Council as required by section 42G of the ALR Act. In addition, Mr Green and Ms Dates signed the contractual agreements with Sunshine on behalf of the ALALC despite lacking the authority to do so, and other ALALC board members, staff and members were not aware of this transaction.

The Commission found that pre-existing entrenched poor governance, failures to follow the ALR Act, and a breakdown of communication made the ALALC vulnerable to the corrupt conduct exposed in this investigation. The Commission has made 15 corruption prevention recommendations, some specific to the ALALC, but also recommends that the NSW Aboriginal Land Council and the ALR Act registrar consider if they all should be applied to LALCs in general.

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 about the prosecution of Mr Green, Mr Petroulias and Ms Bakis for various offences.

The Commission held a public inquiry in this investigation, with 53 hearing days in 2018, 2019 and 2020. Former Chief Commissioner the Hon Peter Hall QC presided at the public inquiry and 38 witnesses gave evidence. On 5 March 2021, the Chief Commissioner ruled that the public inquiry was concluded. Further information about the progress and delay in completion of the public inquiry is available in chapter 2 of the report. The report is available on the ICAC website at www.icac.nsw.gov.au.

Media contact: ICAC A/Manager Communications & Media, Sue Bolton, 0417 467 801, sbolton@icac.nsw.gov.au

Investigation report                 Fact sheet