Masons and Foster acted corruptly in Wagonga land deals, ICAC finds


THREE former members of the Wagonga Local Aboriginal Land Council have been found to have corruptly accepted cash payments in exchange for trying to push through dodgy land deals in the NSW south coast town of Narooma.

Ron Mason Snr, his daughter Vanessa Mason and Ken ‘KJ’ Foster were each found by the Independent Commission Against Corruption to have engaged in corrupt conduct over the land deals, which ran from 2005 to 2010.

On behalf of the Wagonga Local Aboriginal Land Council, they had been negotiating with millionaire Sydney property developer Ron Medich and his associate, Lucky Gattellari (collectively known as the Medich Group) over four key parcels of land in Narooma, worth millions of dollars.

On each occasion, the attempts to ram through the deals were blocked by the NSW Aboriginal Land Council, publisher of Tracker magazine.

The ICAC handed down its report this afternoon, following an extensive inquiry held earlier this year. It found:

• Vanessa Mason engaged in corrupt conduct by accepting the payments of around $127,746 made to her and her company, Emandem Enterprises, by Mr Gattellari as a reward for having used her position as Wagonga LALC CEO to facilitate negotiations between the Wagonga LALC and Water View Developments, and as an inducement for her to continue using her position as CEO to assist Mr Gattellari and Water View Developments in the future.

• Ron Mason Snr engaged in corrupt conduct by accepting payments of around $38,300 and other financial benefits from Mr Gattellari as an inducement and reward for using his position as Wagonga LALC chairperson to facilitate and assist negotiations with the Medich Group in relation to the joint venture agreement.

• Ken ‘KJ’ Foster acted corruptly by accepting payments of around $31,300 and other benefits from Mr Gattellari as an inducement to use his position as Wagonga LALC coordinator to facilitate negotiations with the Medich Group in relation to the joint venture agreement.

The ICAC also found Mr Medich and Mr Gattellari had both engaged in corrupt conduct by making the payments.

The ICAC is now preparing a brief for the Director of Public Prosecutions, and has recommended that “consideration should be given to obtaining the advice of the (DPP) with respect to the prosecution of: Mr Mason, Mr Foster and Ms Mason for offences of corruptly receiving benefits contrary to section 249B(1) of the Crimes Act 1900 and offences of misconduct in public office.”

That process is likely to drag well into 2013.

The ICAC also recommended the DPP seek advice about the prosecution of Mr Medich, but in relation to Mr Gattellari it noted: “Taking into account the assistance that Mr Gattellari provided to the Commission, the ICAC is not of the opinion that consideration should be given to obtaining the advice of the DPP with respect to the prosecution of Mr Gattellari.”

Ms Mason, Mr Mason and Mr Foster are no longer employed by the Wagonga LALC, so ICAC found it “is not required to form an opinion as to whether consideration should be given to the taking of action against them for a specified disciplinary offence.”

The conduct of Ronnie Binge, an Aboriginal man who ICAC heard had helped facilitate meetings between the Medich Group and Wagonga LALC, and provide cash payments, has not been referred to the DPP for further investigation. However the ICAC report notes: “Mr Binge was an unimpressive witness and the Commission has doubts about the veracity of his evidence. The Commission does not consider, however, that there is sufficient evidence to show that Mr Binge facilitated the payments to Mr Mason or Mr Foster for a corrupt or improper purpose.”

And Vivienne Mason, Ron Mason Snr’s husband and Vanessa Mason’s mother, has also escaped further scrutiny. Ms Mason admitted during the hearings that she accepted a loan from Mr Gattellari while holding office at Wagonga LALC, however the ICAC report makes no adverse finding against her.

Mr Medich is already facing charges of murder, over the September 2009 slaying of Sydney property developer Michael McGurk. Mr Gattellari pled guilty in July this year to being an accessory before the fact of the murder. He cut a deal with police after previously facing charges of soliciting the murder, and being an accessory after the fact.

Ron Mason Snr has since been named during court proceedings in Sydney as having unsuccessfully sought to recruit a hitman to kill Mr McGurk.

The ICAC also handed down recommendations for strengthening the land right rights network against corrupt activities.

It recommended:

• any future amendments to the Aboriginal Lands Right Act 1983 are sensitive to the resource implications of compliance with the amended legislation for the Aboriginal land rights network;

• the Minister for Aboriginal Affairs consults with the NSW Aboriginal Land Council regarding the Aboriginal land rights network’s financial and resource capacity to provide support and capability development to LALCs across NSW;

• the Minister for Aboriginal Affairs considers a review of the operation of Part 10 of the Aboriginal Land Rights Act in meeting the expectations of the land rights network by excluding individuals who have been found to have engaged in corrupt conduct or in serious misconduct for a period of up to five years.

You can read in detail about the ICAC hearing here.

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