A CAUTIONARY TALE: Land deals and brown paper bags

IF NOTHING else, the story of how a wealthy property developer came to be working with a small Far South Coast Local Aboriginal Land Council over a series of land deals that potentially would reap millions is a cautionary tale. It’s a story of rich white developers; of organized crime figures; of poor black land council officials; of corruption; of deceit; and ultimately betrayal. It’s even got a brown paper bag, full of cash.

FORTUNATO Gattellari, a former Australian boxing champion, may be ‘Lucky’ by nickname, but he’s certainly not by nature.

When he and Ronnie Binge, an Aboriginal man with connections throughout the NSW Aboriginal land rights network, set off from a mansion in Sydney’s ultra-wealthy suburb of Point Piper in April 2005, they hadn’t travelled more than a few hundred metres when they were stopped by police.

Unfortunately for the hapless duo, there’d been a series of break-ins in the area, and the place was crawling with cops. It seems that when burglars start robbing the homes of the nation’s elite, police have a way of re-focusing their resources. Also unfortunately for Gattellari and Binge, they had a brown paper bag in the back seat, stuffed full of cash.

About $53,000, all up.

Even more unfortunate for Binge, his license was a fake. He’d been suspended from driving quite a few years earlier, so changed his identity to ‘Ronnie Jeffries’ in order to win a job.

Binge was promptly arrested, while Gattellari was left to explain where all the cash had come from.

At the time, it probably didn’t seem like such a big deal to Gattellari. He was, after all, a man with extensive links to organised crime. And he had a perfectly reasonable explanation for driving around with so much cash: he and Binge were on their way to the south coast towns of Narooma and Nowra to strike up some deals with two Local Aboriginal Land Councils.

The money was for deposits for development deals, he told police.

Gattellari and Binge had just left the home of multi-millionaire property developer Rod Medich, a former BRW 200 Rich Lister and one of the wealthiest men in the country.

Medich, Gattellari told police, could confirm the whole story.

Police knocked on Medich’s door, and that’s precisely what he did.

On the surface at least, it seemed Gattellari’s luck hadn’t run out after all.

Things were looking up for Binge too. He was released later that night. Gattellari picked him up, and they continued on their way down south.

But as is the habit of police, they recorded the encounter on what’s known as the COPS database – a massive filing system which keeps track of every activity by every officer in NSW.

Apart from its crucial importance to crime statistics, COPS is also used by investigators to make all sorts of weird and wonderful links, sometimes long after an actual event.

And that’s, at least in part, how Lucky Gattellari’s luck eventually ran out.

His presence outside the home of Medich, and his car full of cash, would later become a key piece of evidence in an Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) inquiry staged late last month into his dealings in Narooma.

Lucky’s downfall really began more than a year earlier, when he was arrested for the murder of North Shore property developer Michael McGurk.

Apparently, McGurk owed Ron Medich – Gattellari’s business partner – a great deal of money. At least that’s what Medich had told the courts. McGurk argued that it was Medich that owed him.

Whatever the truth, in September 2009, McGurk was shot in the head outside his palatial Cremorne home.
His 10-year-old son was standing beside him.

For obvious reasons, the killing drew enormous media attention.

Police formed Strike Force Narrunga, and finally, 13 months after the murder, police raided Gattellari’s home and office.

Gattellari was charged with soliciting McGurk’s murder, and according to media reports promptly rolled over and provided police with a 250-page statement implicating some of the nation’s most powerful law-makers in any number of scandals.

Already, former Labor minister Ian Macdonald has faced an ICAC inquiry into allegations he accepted bribes – and prostitutes – courtesy of Medich and Gattellari.

Thanks to the police raids, which unearthed a mountain of documents, Gattellari also provided police with extensive details about his land dealings with Local Aboriginal Land Councils.

It seems Gattellari had been travelling up and down the coast of NSW, trying to strike deals.
Ron Medich’s luck would also eventually run out. He was arrested two weeks after Gattellari, also for soliciting the murder of McGurk.

Gattellari, police alleged, wasn’t the triggerman. He’d simply organised the hit.

Medich, it’s alleged, paid the bill, reportedly $300,000.

The term ‘carpetbagging’ was first used in the United States in the mid 1800s. Southerners – who wanted to secede from the United States of America – used it to describe Northerners (Yankees), who they saw as outsiders entering the south to exploit locals for financial gain.

The phrase came from the fact that the Yankees often used to travel with ‘carpet bags’ – sturdy luggage made from disused carpet.

In the Aboriginal context, carpetbagging is when a non-Aboriginal person seeks to take financial advantage of an Aboriginal person by exploiting their desperation or naiveté.

The term is most commonly used in the art world to describe, for example, a dealer who goes to a poor, remote Aboriginal community, offers an artist a few hundred dollars for a series of paintings, and then sells them on the mainstream market for thousands.

But you don’t have to be a poor Aboriginal artist to get yourself carpetbagged.

Increasingly, in NSW at least, the phrase has been used to describe the practice of developers targeting resource-poor Aboriginal Land Councils with deals that seem a little too good to be true.
And they often are.

In the process, developers have occasionally offered local officials bribes to smooth the way through for the deal.
Land dealings in Koompahtoo – a local land council abolished in 2010 amid adverse findings in the ICAC – is one of the more famous examples.

While developers rarely get away with it, the stakes are high, so they frequently try.

The story of Wagonga LALC, the ICAC heard, is one such tale. But before you understand what happened in Narooma, you need to meet the some of the other central characters in the plot.

Lucky Gattellari… he’s facing murder charges, and allegations he made corrupt payments to land council officials to try and force through land deals.

We’ve already met Medich, Gattellari and Binge. Together, they were known throughout the ICAC hearing as the ‘Medich Group’ (a reference to a series of companies they established to complete, among other things, four key land deals).

The other main characters in the alleged plots are all Aboriginal.

There’s Ken ‘KJ’ Foster, a former Chair of La Perouse LALC, CEO of Wagonga LALC, and a former regional councillor with the NSW Aboriginal Land Council. The ICAC heard he received cash payments and other benefits of at least $35,000 in exchange for facilitating land deals for the Medich Group.

And there’s Ron Mason, the long-time chairman of Wagonga LALC and the patriarch of the South Coast Mason family. He’s also a former regional councillor with the NSW Aboriginal Land Council, and is alleged to have received at least $38,000 in payments and benefits from the Medich Group while was he trying to push through the Wagonga land deals.

His daughter is Vanessa Mason. She has served as both chair of Wagonga, and CEO (a role she still holds today). Vanessa Mason is alleged to have received substantial sums through the Medich Group while trying to push through land dealings described in the ICAC hearing as “disastrously disadvantageous” to LALC members, and “inexplicably advantageous” to the Medich Group.

The details of Ms Mason’s alleged corruption are a little harder to track than that of her father, or cousin-in-law Foster. But the ICAC heard she received cash benefits of at least $23,000, and was able to clear the debts of her brother, Ron Mason Jnr through the part-sale of an oyster leasing business to Gattellari and Medich, worth more than $75,000.

There’s also Vivienne Mason, Ron’s wife and mother of Vanessa. The ICAC heard she received a small loan from Gattellari, and that she held various official positions in the land council when decisions were made that advantaged her family.

There’s also Gil Saunders, former chair of the Gandangara LALC, who introduced Medich and Gattellari around the LALC network, including to the Wagonga LALC. There is no inference that Mr Saunders was paid bribes or broke any laws, only that he opened doors for the Medich Group.

In addition to the main players in the alleged conspiracy, there’s also Theresa Hamilton, Assistant Commissioner with the ICAC who conducted the inquiry. Assistant Commissioner Hamilton ran a tight but respectful ship, but she wasn’t above bringing witnesses into line.

During the cross examination of Ronnie Binge, for example, when he was describing payments received by Foster and Mason Snr as “research”, a clearly annoyed Hamilton described his evidence as “offensive” because “…it assumes we’re all idiots here.”

Ken ‘KJ’ Foster, a former coordinator at the Wagonga LALC denied accusations he received bribes to help the Medich Group secure land deals. The ICAC heard he allegedly received cash and other benefits worth around $35,000. Mr Foster claimed payments received were for work he’d completed for Lucky Gattellari.

At one point during Ken Foster’s testimony, Hamilton reminded him about the oath he’d taken at the start of his appearance.

“Mr Foster, I’d like you to think over the lunchtime about your evidence? I’d like to remind you that providing false or misleading information to this Commission is a very serious offence. It’s punishable by up to five years’ imprisonment so I’d like you to think very carefully about your evidence that you’ve given and that you are to give because this is a serious matter?”

And then there’s Geoffrey Watson SC, Counsel Assisting the Inquiry. He proved a courteous but tenacious examiner of the facts. And like Hamilton, despite his polite nature, he repeatedly took on witnesses he believed were misleading the Commission.

At one point, during Foster’s examination, Watson is accused of racism while suggesting that an earlier witness saw Mr Foster receiving money from Gattellari.

WATSON: I’ve told you about Mr Potter, I mean I don’t think anybody’s going to suggest he’s a dishonest man? He remembers you and he remembers the day?

FOSTER: Well, and you’re saying I’m a dishonest man and he’s not.

WATSON: Well actually I am, Mr Foster. I want to make that clear.

FOSTER: Is that, is that because of the colour (of my skin)?

WATSON: Well absolutely not and you should never have said that to me, Mr Foster? Of all people.

Watson’s job was to assist the ICAC to unpick a very complex series of events. It made for fascinating viewing.

And finally, there’s Grant Lockley, a forensic accountant with the ICAC who would provide a detailed examination of thousands of documents, bank statements, company registers, and cash and bank transfers.

Lockley’s evidence, by its nature, was very dry, but it formed a crucial part of the ICAC examination.

Now back to the plot.

Before Lucky Gattellari became a fully-fledged underworld figure, he’d worked with Ronnie Binge at a car dealership in Bankstown.

The pair were mates, but hadn’t seen each other for years. That was until Binge approached Gattellari in early 2005 and told him that he had contacts within the Aboriginal land rights network, and that he could help Gattellari strike some deals.

“It seems that it was a corrupt plan from inception,” Watson told the hearing. “Binge made it clear that to secure the deals side payments had to be made to the decision-makers in the land councils.”

Gattellari testified: “He (Binge) believed that there were a number of people in positions out there in the Aboriginal Land Councils that could be persuaded to make favourable decisions based on cash money.”

It’s an allegation Binge denied, claiming he warned Gattellari that all transactions had to be “above board”, although the land councils might need to be “assisted” with money because they were poor.

Whatever the truth, neither Binge nor Gattellari had the money to develop land in Narooma, or anywhere else for that matter. So Gattellari approached Medich, a man he’d known since his childhood.

The ICAC heard Medich was subsequently told deals were available to be done, but that cash would be needed to “butter up” Aboriginal land council officials.

Medich, the ICAC heard, was only too willing.

For his part, Medich claimed he’d never even heard the term “butter up” in his life, and that he left the finer details to Gattellari.

The three men, along with Gil Saunders – the then chairman of Gandangara LALC – arranged to meet with the Wagonga LALC.

In early March 2005, the Medich group pitched their interest to Wagonga members over four blocks of land in and around Narooma – a 13 hectare waterfront block at Fullers Beach; a three hectare block adjoining Nangudga Lake; a 15 hectare block on Corrunna Lake; and the jewel in the crown, a 14.72 hectare block in Isabel Street adjoining the famous Narooma Golf Club.

Isabel Street, the ICAC heard, had panoramic views over the ocean, and Gattellari described it as “probably… the nicest spot in Narooma had it been developed”.

The Medich Group’s intention was to have the blocks rezoned to residential, and then develop the land for upmarket housing.

After the men finished their pitch, Wagonga members asked them to leave the room.

They had a brief discussion, apparently deciding against seeking an independent valuation of their land, or speaking to other developers about what they might pay.

Wagonga members invited the men back into the room, then signed a letter of intent to deal exclusively with the Medich Group.

As it would later turn out, all of the properties were grossly undervalued – the Medich Group’s valuation on the Fuller’s Beach lot, for example, came in at $1.1 million, but a later valuation forced by NSWALC estimated its value at twice that figure.

The carpetbagging had begun.

Nine days later, on March 18, Gattellari deposited $2,000 cash into the personal bank account of Chairman Ron Mason, the man who ran the meeting.

Over the course of the next year, Mason would allegedly receive sums of money from Gattellari ranging from a few hundred dollars, to $5,000.

He also took possession of Gattellari’s car, which he told ICAC he paid back through work for Gattellari.

That work included assembling steel shelving at Gattellari’s factory in south-west Sydney; driving a truck of electrical gear up the north coast; cleaning up Gattellari’s home; and collecting money owed to Gattellari.

Ken ‘KJ’ Foster wasn’t at Wagonga when the deal was initially signed, but he arrived about a month later and took up the job as coordinator (the position is now known as CEO).

He’d already met Gattellari in Sydney, during his time at La Perouse LALC. He too would allegedly receive cash ranging from a few hundred dollars to $5,000. And he too would claim to the ICAC that the money was for work performed for Gattellari, most of it convincing Aboriginal people on the south coast to join a funeral fund which Medich owned (the Boomerang fund).

But work or bribes aside, what Mason, Foster, Gattellari, Medich, Binge and Vanessa Mason didn’t bank on was the difficulty in pushing the land dealing past the NSW Aboriginal Land Council (publisher of Tracker).

The project stalled, and stalled badly, when NSWALC came to the view the proposed land dealings were not in the interests of Wagonga members.

A year after signing up, Wagonga still hadn’t received approval from NSWALC. The strain was starting to show, both at Wagonga and in Sydney.

Despite testifying to the ICAC that she always opposed the four land deals, in May 2006 Vanessa Mason – now chair of the LALC after taking over from her father – wrote to NSWALC seeking advice “as a matter of urgency” about whether or not the deals would be approved.

She also wrote to Lucky Gattellari, thanking him for his patience and advising him that Wagonga should have undertaken a tender process for the development of the land. She advised him that Wagonga had secured a new lawyer with greater experience in land dealings.

On July 13, the manager of NSWALC’s Commercial Unit, Simon Spicer wrote back to Mason. The letter was a devastating blow to the development aspirations of the Wagonga members.

Spicer identified 18 serious problems with the deals, including the fact that they did not fit with Wagonga’s business plan; there was no evidence of appropriate consultation with WLALC members; there was no detailed explanation of the deal; no tender or expressions of interest process had been undertaken; there was no apparent independent legal advice; there was no independent advice from town planners, real estate agents, project managers or financial experts; no financial information about the joint venture partners (the Medich Group was proposing to do the deal under the structure of a $2 company, which meant if the project failed they couldn’t be sued); and no details on possible conflicts of interest by Wagonga members were ever declared.

Effectively, the deal was dead, squashed by the state body with the power to approve or deny.

But the Medich Group were undeterred. And so, as it turned out, were the small number of Wagonga members keen to strike a deal.

Evidence produced at the ICAC inquiry revealed that out of more than 100 members, only around 15 regularly turned out to Wagonga meetings. Most of those were close members of the Mason family.

Ron Mason Snr, the head of the large Mason family from the Far South Coast. He also denied allegations he received cash bribes worth around $38,000, including a $12,000 car. Mr Mason Snr also claimed cash he recieved was for work he completed for Lucky Gattellari, although he conceded he had a clear conflict of interest.

After initially denying his family controlled the LALC, Ron Mason Snr was forced to concede during the ICAC hearing that his family were a major beneficiary of the LALC’s activities.

While Mason Snr was chair of the organisation, members voted to sell him a home worth more than $80,000, via an interest-free loan. Pressed on how he could justify the transaction, Mason Snr told the ICAC: “Well, that’s, that was everyone was doing in the, in the land council system.”

Having led a meeting that awarded him an interest free loan on a Wagonga-owned house, Mason Snr then began defaulting on the repayments.

Other Mason family members were also voted interest-free housing loans.

In addition to this, the ICAC heard the Mason’s controlled the employment at Wagonga LALC.

At various times, Ron Mason Snr, his son Ronnie Mason Jnr, his wife Vivienne Mason, and daughter Vanessa Mason also served as chair of the LALC.

Vivienne and Vanessa also served as CEOs, and Vanessa’s partner Ursula Moore also gained employment at the LALC.

And benefits weren’t just restricted to housing. Wagonga also undertook business ventures which directly benefitted the Masons.

At a Wagonga meeting in 2002, members voted to award a valuable 99-year lease over a portion of the Fuller’s Beach property to a newly formed company – Walkun Mara Aquaculture Pty Ltd.

It emerged during the ICAC hearing that every single one of the nine shareholders of the company was a member of the Mason family.

Walkun Mara had agreed to pay the members of Wagonga LALC more than $6,000 per annum in rent.

Wagonga never saw a cent of it.

Mason Snr was quizzed by Geoffrey Watson SC as to why his company never coughed up the rent.

WATSON: Why didn’t you pay?

MASON SNR: Oh, I think ah, because of ah, the shareholders, no-one wanted to put a contribution towards it.

WATSON: Well, you were one of them?

MASON SNR: Yeah, I was one, yeah.

WATSON: So were you one of the people who said you didn’t want to put any money in?

MASON SNR: No, I wanted to put money in but the others didn’t want to.

WATSON: Well, did you, did you as a shareholder then put in your share?

MASON SNR: Well, they didn’t put their share in so I didn’t put mine in….

Walkun Mara Aquaculture would also become a key point of focus during the ICAC hearing.

With the original Medich Group deal for four blocks of land falling over, in August 2007 they tried again, this time putting in an offer for the Fuller’s Beach property, part of which took in the Walkun Mara lease.

Unfortunately for the Mason family – and for the Medich Group – NSWALC intervened again, once more describing the deals as advantageous to the developers, and disadvantageous to the Wagonga members.

Like the previous deals, the Wagonga members had accepted the valuations put forward by the Medich Group without seeking their own figures.

In consultation with NSWALC, new lawyers for Wagonga insisted the LALC members obtain independent market valuations on the properties.

The valuation on one block of land – which Wagonga had already agreed to lease at $1,500 per annum – showed it was worth $8,728 per annum.

Wagonga also agreed to lease the property adjoining Corrunna Lake for $2,500 per annum. But a valuation estimated it at $10,100.

The Fuller’s beach property was to be leased to Gattellari for $12,000 per annum. The independent valuation came in at $30,000 per annum.

And here’s the kicker: Shareholders of Walkun Mara – Mason’s family members – were offered a buy out figure on their lease over a section of the Fuller’s Beach land of $400,000, but only if the Wagonga deals went ahead.

And of course, the shareholders of Walkun Mara were also the decision-makers at Wagonga LALC.

On April 21, 2008, the second Medich Group proposal fell over as well, blocked once again by NSWALC.

Vanessa Mason’s alleged role in corrupt activities at Wagonga LALC had, up until this point at least, been harder to quantify.

She conceded during the ICAC hearing that while CEO she twice sought to push through deals that were “inexplicably favourable” to the Medich Group, and “disastrously disadvantageous” to Wagonga members.

There was, however, no evidence of Ms Mason receiving side payments (although there was substantial evidence presented to the ICAC alleging her father was).

Ms Mason explained her lapses of judgment by saying she felt “under pressure” by Gattellari, who was becoming increasingly frustrated at the delays. He began regularly phoning Ms Mason, although she concedes he never threatened her.

It was now more than three years since the Medich Group first pitched their original proposal. And despite the expenditure of at least $70,000 – almost all of it on alleged bribes to Mason Snr and ‘KJ’ Foster – they had nothing to show for it.

“…He was very angry because nothing had happened to the previous, there was no outcomes to the previous proposed deal,” Ms Mason told the ICAC.

“He wasn’t very nice to be around I can tell you that.”

But it was about to get a whole lot more expensive. And unpleasant.

Vanessa Mason was the former chair and current CEO of Wagonga LALC. She also denied accusations she took cash bribes, describing her receipt of at least $23,000 in cash as loans from a business she had set up with Lucky Gattelari and Ron Merdich. She conceded she tried to push through land deals which “inexplicably” favoured the Medich group.

DESPITE her stated reservations about Gattellari, Vanessa Mason struck up a private business deal with Medich and Gattellari, while at the same time trying to push through yet another land deal as CEO of Wagonga.

On August 18, Vanessa’s mother, Vivienne (now the chair of Wagonga) staged an Extraordinary Meeting of Wagonga LALC. Once again, the minutes of the meeting show the members present were overwhelmingly part of the Mason family.

They voted to lease the Fuller’s Beach property – and two others – to a new company, Waterview Developments, which is 100 percent owned by Gattellari.

The ICAC heard evidence that Gattellari and Medich were using Gattellari’s company to hide assets from Medich’s wife (the couple were at the start of an acrimonious split, although during the ICAC hearing Medich denied hiding assets, claiming he had no idea what Gattellari was doing).

A few months later, Gattellari began making cash deposits into Vanessa Mason’s personal bank account.

Ms Mason said this was to start a joint business enterprise unrelated to the land dealings.

In March 2009 he also sponsored Mason, her partner Ursula, and another local woman, on a $5,500 trip to Queensland to attend a four-day Indigenous Tourism Conference.

Evidence produced at the ICAC hearing showed that on September 1, 2009 Gattellari transferred $76,325.72 into the business account of Emandem Enterprises, a company established by Ms Mason.

The funds were withdrawn the same day.

Ms Mason used the money to purchase a business off her brother, Ronnie Mason Jnr. For the better part of a decade, he’d run an oyster lease out of the Wagonga Inlet. But after securing a loan through Indigenous Business Australia (IBA), Mason Jnr defaulted on it.

Documents produced at the inquiry showed the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC, since disbanded) gained a court order against Mason Jnr on behalf of IBA.

Ms Mason used the funds to pay out the loan.

In effect, Gattellari and Medich, the inquiry heard, had bought into the lease, while at the same time relying on Ms Mason to progress their land dealing through Wagonga.

Here’s the exchange between Ms Mason and Watson SC.

WATSON: Now could you tell the Commissioner how many tasty oysters have ever been produced from that oyster lease?

V MASON: None.

WATSON: Right. It’s not a very good business, is it?


WATSON: And yet a lot of money was put into it by Gattellari, wasn’t it?


WATSON: And in fact you’ve been here while evidence was given [that there were] payments into Emandem Pty Limited in the order of $125,000. Is that right?

V MASON: I think so, I think it was that amount.

WATSON: And you have given your evidence that not even one oyster has ever been produced?

V MASON: That’s right.

WATSON: So with the $125,000, what business assets were purchased?

V MASON: It wasn’t much.

WATSON: Could I summarise by saying this: nothing. That’d be fair, wouldn’t it?


In fact, Ms Mason had purchased $3,000 worth of oyster trays from a local business. And she’d also expended a few hundred dollars on other bits pieces, including renting a laptop.

But even factoring in the $76,000 to buy out Mason Jnr’s debt, that still left a large sum of money unaccounted for.

So the ICAC produced the bank records for Emandem Enterprises.

What it showed was that Ms Mason was ‘borrowing’ money from the company, and at an alarming rate.

Transactions tendered to the inquiry showed Ms Mason withdrew sums ranging from a few hundred dollars to a few thousand on dozens of occasions.

The majority of them came from venues such as the Narooma Sports Club, the Narooma Golf Club, Dalmeny Bowling Club and the South Sydney Juniors Club.

Ms Mason was feeding the company money through the poker machines, and it continued on for months, the ICAC heard. In fact, in a one month period – between May and June 2010 – Ms Mason withdrew more than $5,000 through ATM machines at licensed venues, and almost that figure again from unidentified locations.

Between October 2009 and September 2010, the withdrawals on the Emandem account totalled more than $26,000. And then suddenly the withdrawals – and deposits – ceased.

It’s worth remembering, a year earlier Michael McGurk had been shot dead.

Vivienne Mason, matriarch of the family. She admitted receiving a small loan from Gattellari worth $400, but claimed it did not influence her decisions on land deals. The ICAC heard she held various official roles within the LALC when deals that favoured her family were pushed through.

By September 2010, with the Emandem account almost empty, the police were well and truly closing in on the not-so-Lucky Gattellari.

A month after the funds in Emandem dried up, Gattellari’s home and office was raided by police, and he was arrested and held without bail. Two weeks after that, Medich was in jail as well (but later released on bail).

With Medich and Gattellari feeling the heat, the Medich Group land dealings over which Vanessa Mason was still presiding ground to a halt.

Emandem Enterprises has since been placed into voluntary administration.

One thing is certain. Regardless of whether or not Michael McGurk got murdered, and Lucky Gattellari’s home and office got raided, the third and final Wagonga land deal would never have made it through.

Had it been progressed further, the NSW Aboriginal Land Council, would have blocked it, the same way it blocked the previous two land dealings.

A few other things are apparent from the ICAC hearings.

Alleged corruption aside, some of the officials within Wagonga LALC clearly had very limited understanding of the requirements of the NSW Aboriginal Land Rights Act.

Three times they executed agreements with the Medich Group over deals on which they could never guarantee they could deliver.

Three times they passed resolutions at Council meetings which benefitted some of them personally.
Never did they disclose their personal interests.

In the case of Vanessa Mason, she wrote to Lucky Gattellari after the first deal stalled informing him they should have sent the land out of tender.

And then she tried to push through deals on the same land twice more, but without ever sending the land to tender.

Both Ron Mason Snr and Ms Mason acknowledged that in hindsight, they had clear conflicts of interest.
Ken Foster – not a member of Wagonga LALC, but the coordinator and someone in a position to influence the outcomes of the land dealings – also conceded as much.

But not before each argued that their own personal business dealings – described as ‘bribes’ by the ICAC – were no-one’s business but their own. Not even the members of Wagonga, whose interests they were charged with protecting, should have been entitled to know, they argued.

Despite the apparent confusion at Wagonga, the legislation on land dealings under the NSW Aboriginal Land Rights Act is very clear, and that’s due in no small part to the sorts of developments in which Wagonga got involved.

In 2010, NSWALC negotiated a series of amendments to the Act to ensure that even if LALCs entered into agreements with developers that had no hope of getting through, the developers couldn’t turn around and sue the LALC when the proposal was inevitably blocked by NSWALC.

That won’t, of course, stop individual LALC officials from receiving corrupt payments – in reality, it’s happened for years at all levels of government, black and white.

But it does put the onus of responsibility on developers, and it’s a shot across the bow of carpetbaggers – the 2010 amendments ensure they know that even though some LALCs may lack capacity and resources, behind every one of them stands the NSW Aboriginal Land Council.

Of course, while NSWALC can stop bad land dealings by simply withholding approval, it’s up to the members of individual LALCs to police the process at their end.

LALCs, after all, are autonomous bodies. Their members make decisions. Their members control their destinies and their assets.

All NSWALC can do is ensure that the proper processes have been followed in the development of land and community benefit schemes.

On that front, the ICAC had quite a bit to say… and while Tracker, owned by NSWALC, has an obvious interest in telling you what that was, if we don’t, no-one else will. So here it is.

In his opening address to the Inquiry, Geoffrey Watson SC made clear the purpose of the hearing.

“Commissioner, there is a public interest in having this kind of corruption exposed. Any individuals involved must be identified and removed from decision-making positions.

“Part of the public interest and part of the purpose of this public inquiry is to attempt to prevent further corruption. To this end, I propose to adduce evidence from persons skilled in the conduct of Aboriginal Land Councils with a view to allowing this Commission to make recommendations on how corruption in Local Aboriginal Land Councils can be prevented or avoided.

“This evidence will show that the New South Wales Aboriginal Land Council is exemplary in its conduct and its professionalism. It is very likely that I will be suggesting that its role in supporting the activities of local Land Councils be strengthened.”

Like everyone else, CEO of NSWALC, Geoff Scott, is awaiting the findings of the inquiry with interest.

“Greater compliance brings with it greater costs on the Aboriginal land rights network,” Mr Scott said.

“My personal view is that at the moment, as the Wagonga case shows, I think we’ve got things about right.

“But that’s not to suggest you can’t tighten things even further. We’ll cross that bridge when and if we come to it.”

ASSISTANT Commissioner Hamilton’s findings and recommendations are expected to be tabled in NSW Parliament in the coming months.

She has the power to recommend charges against individuals. If she does, it’s then a matter for the Director of Public Prosecutions as to whether or not charges are ever pursued.

As she noted during the hearing, Assistant Commissioner Hamilton can also make rulings about the truthfulness of witnesses.

One of the great powers of the ICAC is that unlike a normal court, you may give evidence in a hearing without that testimony subsequently being used against you in a future court proceeding.

In other words, you can tell the truth, and investigators can act on that information, but they can’t use your testimony as an admission of guilt.

There is, however, a rider: if you are found to be lying to the Commission, you may lose your right to immunity.
It also remains to be seen whether or not other LALCs around the state will be come into the frame.

In the course of the inquiry, it emerged that Gattellari, Binge and others sought to strike deals with more than a dozen LALCs.

There will be more than a few people awaiting the outcome of Assistant Commissioner Hamilton’s report.

In the meantime, says Geoff Scott, it’s business as usual for land rights in NSW.

“A core business of the NSW Aboriginal Land Council is to help our members use their land responsibly to facilitate economic development for future generations of Aboriginal people.

“Or as our Chairman Stephen Ryan would say, to make ‘wullung for our Boories’ (money for our kids).

“But as we do that, our members – and potential developers – need to understand that the bad old days of shonky deals and carpetbagging are over.

“NSWALC is determined to protect the assets of our people.

“I’m not suggesting we’re perfect – we’re not. And I’m not suggesting we’ll catch out every carpetbagger, and every corrupt payment.

“But we take our role as a regulator very seriously, and nothing will distract us from that very important task.”

Scott said the great strength of NSWALC is that it’s Aboriginal people controlling Aboriginal aspirations.

“NSWALC is the self-determination that we’ve all been waiting for.

“But part of self-determination means taking the hard decisions, as well as the easy ones.”

Scott also paid tribute to members of his team who prevented the land loss at Wagonga.

“I’m very proud of my team in their handling of the Wagonga land deals, in particular the efforts of our director of the Commercial Unit, Julie Van Agten,” he said.

“I also should acknowledge the efforts of previous NSWALC officials, including Simon Spicer, who advised Wagonga on the original land dealing proposal.

“When that first land deal was rejected in 2006, the late great Murray Chapman was the administrator of the NSW Aboriginal Land Council (the NSWALC Board had been sacked for management shortcomings), and the CEO was William ‘Smiley’ Johnstone.

“The efforts of these two men in particular, to ensure that the interests of the members of Wagonga – and members more broadly throughout the state – were protected, deserve particular praise.”

The last word, ironically enough, belongs to Lucky Gattellari.

He’s cooling his heels in protective custody somewhere at an undisclosed prison in NSW.

When he arrived at the ICAC hearing, he was surrounded by police and corrective services officers. Despite the intense security, he was still wearing a bullet-proof vest.

Lucky Gattellari is a marked man.

During his cross examination by a lawyer for one of the other witnesses (Binge), Gattellari was quizzed about his knowledge of NSWALC, and the process of getting a land dealing through with a local council.

Given how much time and money he, Binge and Medich invested, his answer is surprising.

LEWIS: You knew that no matter what the Wagonga Land Council decided to do with the land, it was always going to be subject to approval at a higher level, wasn’t it?

GATTELLARI: At the time that this was put together and at the time that I went down to Narooma, I knew nothing about Aboriginal land. As far as I was concerned and was made aware of by Mr Binge, that it’s just a normal land deal like anyone else, anywhere else.

Gattellari believed that he would be dealing with Wagonga, and Wagonga only. But evidence produced at the inquiry revealed that after several years, the penny finally dropped.

One of Gattellari’s documents tendered at the inquiry is a handwritten list of the various deals he was trying to do around the state.

Next to each listing, he uses a single word to describe the outcome. The only two words he uses are ‘nothing’ or ‘f**ked’.

LEWIS: I notice that in the document you put together which has a number of expletives in it, you mention Section 40D?

GATTELLARI: Well, by the time I put that document together I knew exactly what a 40D was.

LEWIS: So you’d been on a learning curve?

GATTELLARI: Oh, very, very much so.

LEWIS: And at the initial stage you’re telling the Commission you were handing out money with the expectation that services would be rendered to you which would facilitate land just being transferred over in the joint venture project?


LEWIS: And you hadn’t done any due diligence to discover how it all worked?

GATTELLARI: No, I didn’t, I believed what Mr Binge told me.

A ‘40d’ is a reference to the relevant section of the Aboriginal Land Rights Act, which governs how land dealings can occur, and what NSWALC can, and cannot, approve.

Gattellari finishes his evidence by acknowledging that the 40d process is something of which he became “drastically aware”.

Brown paper bags, it seems, not being part of it.

* Chris Graham is an Australian journalist specialising in Aboriginal Affairs. He has twice won the Human Rights Award for his reporting, and is a Walkley Award and a Walkley High Commendation winner. He lives in Glebe, Sydney.


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