Corruption 'systemic' - all councillors 'should go'

The conduct of four Wollongong councillors pointed to the existence of systemic corruption within the council, Independent Commission Against Corruption Commissioner Jerrold Cripps, QC, found yesterday.

He said he had come to the conclusion that it was appropriate for him to recommend the positions of all 13 councillors be vacated.

His finding about the behaviour of councillors Val Zanotto, Kiril Jonovski, Zeki Esen and Frank Gigliotti came 11 days after the start of a public inquiry that has revealed improper relationships between council planning staff and developers and more than $500,000 in bribes, sought by two convicted criminals, intended to pervert the course of the ICAC investigation into Wollongong City Council.

Allegations have been made that Cr Zanotto had an improper business relationship with developer Frank Vellar and that he passed confidential council documents to Mr Vellar, and also paid $120,000 to two criminals in the belief it was a bribe to corrupt ICAC officers to drop any evidence against him.

Crs Jonovski, Esen and Gigliotti have been accused by Mr Vellar of trying to extort a $20,000 bribe or political donation from him in return for political support of his project involving the North Beach Bathers' Pavilion.

All three men have denied the claim, although Crs Jonovski and Esen yesterday recanted claims they made to the commission on Friday that they had not met Mr Vellar at the Flame Tree Cafe on October 18, 2006 (see separate story).

"I remind people here that me making this recommendation does not constitute the removal of office of these councillors, it simply means it is now up to the Government to consider what should be done," Mr Cripps said.

"I have taken into account the conduct of four of these 13 councillors and I have come to the conclusion that their conduct makes it clear that systemic corruption exists presently in the council.

"I have not ignored the fact that they have stepped down. They can also step up."

Mr Cripps said the commission would be preparing a report, part one of which would deal with the activities of the four councillors.

"Because of the way we have to deal with these inquiries here if I had left the making of this recommendation until the report was out it would be at least another two months before it was made," he said. "So I have taken a view this is the appropriate way to deal with the matter."

Earlier, Mr Cripps said he was obliged to take into consideration a number of factors in making his decision, the first of which was that there were 13 elected councillors, seven of whom were from the Labor Party and four of whom had given evidence before the commission.

He said he would take into account that those four councillors had voluntarily stepped aside although they still maintained their entitlements, including access to the offices of the council.

Also to be taken into account was the fact former Labor councillor Tony Kent no longer attended and voted at Labor caucus meetings.

"In effect, four people can now determine what 13 people have decided if the caucus suggests that is so," Mr Cripps said.

He said he had been asked to take into consideration that the term of the present council expired at the local government elections in September this year, but he questioned its relevance.

"It is said that if there were a by-election between now and then it could cost the council up to $1 million.

"I have to say two things about that ... I'm not sure it necessarily follows that a by-election would follow the making of a recommendation by me.

"The next thing is, so what?"

Mr Cripps said he wanted to make it clear that if a finding was made, it did not involve every elected councillor and that the commission had only been privy to the behaviour of four of these people.

"It is the conduct of those parties and their conduct with members of the public that would justify the making of this recommendation."

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