Corrupt: Ivan Petch. Photo: Anthony Johnson
A Sydney councillor and former Liberal state MP who leaked confidential information to aid his friends and smear his enemies has been suspended as a councillor after being found corrupt by the Independent Commission Against Corruption.
Ivan Petch was stood down on Monday by Local Government Minister Paul Toole, after the corruption watchdog delivered its findings into the embattled Ryde City Council while Cr Petch served as mayor.
‘‘He has 28 days to come back and say why he should not be dismissed,’’ Mr Toole said.
Cr Petch, a 37-year veteran of public office, was on Monday found to have engaged in corrupt conduct on numerous counts 12 months after the corruption watchdog's two-week hearing into the Ryde Council.
Also found to have acted corruptly were local property developer John Goubran and Richard Henricus, an employee of local newspaper The Weekly Times.
The ICAC also recommended further action against a host of others, including publicist Anthony Stavrinos, former councillor Victor Tagg and three serving councillors - among them Labor's former candidate for the federal seat of Bennelong, Jeff Salvestro-Martin.
“The commission also recommends that the Office of Local Government gives consideration to disciplinary action against Mr Petch, with a view to his dismissal,” the ICAC said.
Cr Petch has rejected the findings, signalling his intention to take the matter to the Supreme Court.
“These findings are a mirror image of the original accusations, and it could be suggested that ICAC had already made its decision prior to the hearings,’’ he said.
Cr Petch, 75, who was then mayor, was found to have leaked information about the discovery of porn on a council laptop last year in a bid to damage then general manager, John Neish, and force him to resign. Cr Petch had earlier arranged to convey a threat to Mr Neish through local developer John Goubran.
He was also found to have attempted to improperly influence Mr Neish's replacement, acting general manager Danielle Dickson, by implying her application for the permanent job would not be supported if she did not resolve the legal costs in a Supreme Court action relating to the ousting of Mr Neish in favour of six councillors, including himself.
Cr Petch leaked confidential advice to the council from the state government for the benefit of Mr Goubran, the ICAC said.
He also released confidential information about Ryde’s civic centre development to lawyer John Mahony and the council’s waste collection and disposal contracts to businessman Norman Cerreto.
Mr Goubran was found to be corrupt for his part in conveying a threat to Mr Neish, through real-estate agent Tony Abboud, that the general manager's job was at risk unless he delayed the redevelopment of Ryde’s civic centre.
The corruption watchdog found against Mr Henricus for telling Liberal councillor Bill Pickering that he would receive favourable coverage if he withdrew his opposition to a development application lodged by The Weekly Times publisher, John Booth.
The ICAC said consideration should also be given to prosecuting councillors Petch, Salvestro-Martin, Justin Li, Terry Perram and Mr Tagg for offences under the Election Funding, Expenditure and Disclosures Act.
Last year’s inquiry had heard the councillors had received undeclared political donations in the form of advertisements that appeared in The Weekly Times in the lead-up to the September 2012 local government elections.
“Mr Petch also deliberately failed to disclose his pecuniary interest or conflict of interest arising from his financial dealing with the owner and managing editor of The Weekly Times, and with the newspaper itself,” the ICAC said.
“The commission is of the opinion that consideration should be given to obtaining the advice of the Director of Public Prosecutions [DPP] with respect to the prosecution of Mr Petch, Mr Goubran, Mr Stavrinos, Mr Booth and Mr Henricus for various offences,” it said.
Mr Neish has welcomed the findings as a vindication of his actions and those of others.
“Local government is an important part of our local society and the community deserves to have confidence that their council operates in a way which is ethical, transparent and fair to all," he said.
"I thank those honest, ethical, councillors, staff and others who displayed bravery and integrity in standing up to the intimidation which was designed to support corruption in Ryde."
The ICAC noted: "Although the material had been located on Mr Neish’s computer, that, in itself, did not establish that he was responsible for the material being there."
First-time Labor councillor George Simon called on the state government to dismiss the entire council.
"[NSW Premier] Mike Baird has claimed that he has zero tolerance for corruption in public life," Cr Simon said. "Now he can prove it.
"Mike Baird should immediately end this circus and insist on the return of ethical leadership to Ryde Council," he said.
Mr Toole said he would carefully examine the ICAC’s recommendations against individuals.
‘‘However I am stating today that we will not tolerate this kind of action,’’ he said.
Cr Pickering, who also welcomed the result, instead called for a mechanism to reappoint or better protect whistleblowers such as Mr Neish.
“The Ivan Petch corruption inquiry has resulted in resignations including one general manager and one acting general manager. We have also lost our senior engineer, legal counsel, and a group manager," he said.
Numerous other managerial staff have left because of the "toxic" environment that permeates the city council. We still don’t have a general manager.”
Ryde's current Liberal mayor Roy Maggio said Cr Petch "has significantly damaged this council’s reputation" but he was pleased that ICAC found no evidence of "systemic or operational failure" within the council.
“I am committed to leading an honest and transparent council with robust policies, systems and procedures in place to prevent this type of misconduct happening again," he said.
Mr Stavrinos was found to have given false or misleading evidence to the commission in relation to the leaking of details of the discovery of adult material on Mr Neish’s computer.
Mr Booth was found to have given false or misleading evidence to the commission in regard to election advertising published in his paper..
The ICAC found that Ivan Petch engaged in corrupt conduct by:
• arranging, through property developer John Goubran, to convey a threat to then general manager, John Neish;
• releasing confidential information concerning the discovery of adult material on Mr Neish’s computer to various people in an attempt to encourage its reporting in the media so as to undermine Mr Neish’s credibility and reputation and to cast doubt on his suitability to serve as the council’s general manager;
• deliberately releasing confidential information in the form of advice from the Department of Planning and Infrastructure that was provided to publicist Anthony Stavrinos on November 26, 2012 and an email from the council’s group manager of environment and planning that was sent to businessman Norman Cerreto on June 27, 2012, in both cases with the intention that the information would be provided to Mr Goubran and used by him for his benefit;
• attempting to improperly influence acting general manager Danielle Dickson in May 2013 to resolve, in favour of six defendant councillors (of which he was one), an ongoing costs dispute in relation to Supreme Court of NSW proceedings in which the council was involved, by making a threat implying that if she did not do so, he and his fellow defendant councillors would not support her application to be appointed as the council’s general manager;
• at the council meeting of March 26, 2013, during consideration of a motion to split the council’s advertising between The Weekly Times and another newspaper, deliberately failing to disclose his pecuniary interest or conflict of interest arising from his financial dealing with John Booth (the owner and managing editor of The Weekly Times) and The Weekly Times;
• deliberately releasing council information, which he knew to be confidential, to Mr Cerreto, in relation to the council's waste collection and disposal contracts;
• deliberately releasing council information that he knew to be confidential to John Mahony in relation to the proposed Ryde civic precinct redevelopment;
John Goubran engaged in corrupt conduct by arranging to convey a threat through real-estate agent Tony Abboud to Mr Neish implying that Mr Neish’s position of council general manager would not be safe after the 2012 local government elections unless Mr Neish agreed to establish a community consultative committee to consider the Ryde civic precinct redevelopment. The ultimate result of the establishment of this committee would be that the redevelopment would be delayed until after the local government elections.
Richard Henricus engaged in corrupt conduct when he approached Liberal councillor Bill Pickering and told him that he would receive favourable publicity in The Weekly Times if he withdrew his opposition to a development application lodged by Mr Booth in relation to the property on which the office of The Weekly Times was located.