ICAC inquiry launched into Awabakal land dealings

SPOTLIGHT: A series of Awabakal proposals to sell its land will be probed by the ICAC. Among them will be the old post office, Braye Park at Waratah and vacant land at Warners Bay. Picture: Simone De Peak

SPOTLIGHT: A series of Awabakal proposals to sell its land will be probed by the ICAC. Among them will be the old post office, Braye Park at Waratah and vacant land at Warners Bay. Picture: Simone De Peak

Last year, a special investigation by the Newcastle Herald shone a spotlight on a web of complex property deals involving land owned by the Awabakal Local Aboriginal Land Council. 

Dubbed the "real-life Alice in Wonderland", it involved an international fugitive called Robbie Rocket, a dead company director, allegations of an international money laundering ring and disgraced former assistant tax commissioner Nick Petroulias. 

Now, the state's corruption watchdog will attempt to unravel the extraordinary chain of events.

A formal inquiry by the Independent Commission against Corruption (ICAC) was announced on Wednesday, with hearings to begin this month. 

Known as Operation Skyline, it will probe whether any Awabakal board director acted dishonestly or breached their duties in relation to a series of proposals to sell land owned by the organisation between 2014 and 2016.

Worth more than $12 million, the properties included the historic former post office building in the CBD, Braye Park at Waratah and vacant land at Warners Bay. 

The inquiry will also examine whether any other person encouraged or induced a board director to act dishonestly, or otherwise engaged in corrupt conduct. 

Three weeks of hearings will begin in Sydney on Monday, March 26. 

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It has been a tumultuous period for the land council, which has been in administration since 2016 following an investigation by the state government. Its administrator, Terry Lawler, welcomed the corruption inquiry. 

“I trust that what will be learnt from the inquiry will clarify the situation regarding what has occurred at Awabakal land council,” he said. 

INVESTIGATION: Awabakal former deputy chair Richard Green said he didn't understand the purpose of the inquiry because "no land has been sold".

INVESTIGATION: Awabakal former deputy chair Richard Green said he didn't understand the purpose of the inquiry because "no land has been sold".

“I’d also like to emphasize this is not a reflection by far on the majority of the members of the land council, who also are extremely concerned, dismayed and angry at what’s occurred. 

“This action has been by a very small number of people and unfortunately the rest of the members of the land council are wearing the results.”

The former chair of the land council’s board, Debbie Dates, could not be reached for comment on Wednesday. 

Deputy chair Richard Green was limited in what he could say with the investigation underway.

“As far as I’m concerned no land has been sold and there has been no misappropriation of funds, so I don’t really understand what’s going on,” he said. 

The scope of the inquiry is also set to take in whether any board director acted dishonestly in agreeing to – or purporting to – retain a firm called Knightsbridge North Lawyers to act on its behalf during the land dealings. 

WELCOME: Awabakal administrator Terry Lawler was pleased that ICAC will investigate the former land dealings of the land council.

WELCOME: Awabakal administrator Terry Lawler was pleased that ICAC will investigate the former land dealings of the land council.

It will examine dealings between the land council and four companies, including Sunshine Property Investment Group, Sunshine Warners Bay, Solstice Property Corporation and Advantage Property Experts Syndications. 

The Sunshine companies are both owned by Chinese businessman Tony Zong, who sued the land council last year over agreements that did not eventuate to buy $12.6 million worth of undeveloped Awabakal land at Warners Bay and Braye Park. 

Mr Zong dropped the legal action earlier this year. 

Advantage Property Experts Syndications, a company with “money” coming in from China and the Middle East, subsequently became involved in a multi-million dollar property proposal with some of the land council’s board members. 

A joint venture would have seen the land at Warners Bay developed into 450 housing sites, with the profits helping to restore the post office building. The deal would put “$30 to $50 million” into the pockets of the Awabakal people. 

When that deal failed to eventuate, Advantage Property Experts Syndications also launched legal action against the land council. 

It lodged a caveat over the post office building and alleged it was owed $300,000 for plans and reports prepared by its consultant. 

Knightsbridge North Lawyers, a second party to the action, alleged it was owed $26,743 for advising the land council on the development of its land. 

The matters are still before the Supreme Court. 

The Herald also revealed last year that invoices for transactions worth more than $70,000 had vanished, following a confidential audit of the land council’s financials in 2015/16 by accounting firm PKF. 

The audit – referred to ICAC – raised concerns about "material inconsistencies" in the land council’s finances that "remained unresolved". 

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