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May 16, 2022

Developer ‘tried to buy favours’

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Bob Ell, right, confers with his regional manager Reg Van Rij at the Cobaki site as former planning minister Tony Kelly announces approval for the huge project in December 2010. Photo Luis Feliu

Luis Feliu

The property tycoon behind the Tweed’s two biggest ever housing developments tried to buy favours of the state government and the local shire council by making large donations to political parties and campaigns, the NSW Supreme Court in Sydney has been told.

Tom Molomby, SC, who is defending Tweed councillor Katie Milne in a defamation case brought against her by billionaire property developer Bob Ell, told the court last week the list of donations included $11,000 to former planning minister Frank Sartor in 2003, before he was in office.

The list also revealed that Mr Ell paid for several expensive dinners, costing between $2,000 to $5,000, with Mr Sartor when he was minister for planning as well as then premier Morris Iemma and ministers Joe Tripodi and David Campbell between 2003 and 2006.

Mr Ell’s Leda property group has state government approval for the development of the townships of Kings Forest on the Tweed coast and Cobaki near the NSW-Queensland border, both for around 10,000 homes.

Mr Molomby also told the court that in October 2005 Mr Ell donated $110,000 to the NSW Labor Party, prior to lodging the Kings Forest application with the state government, which gave him access to then premier Bob Carr and various ministers.

Two months later, in December 2005, Mr Ell sent Mr Sartor, then planning minister, a letter.

Mr Ell’s counsel had argued the letter should not be admitted as evidence as it had been produced without warning and late in the hearing, but Mr Molomby said it was crucial to Cr Milne’s defence because it was allegedly part of an attempt by Mr Ell to buy influence from the state government and the local council.

Justice Lucy McCallum admitted the letter in which Mr Ell wrote to Mr Sartor saying, ‘It was a pleasure to catch up with you and the premier for Christmas drinks. I was very surprised to learn that you have not heard of our 3A application for State Significant sites for Kings Forest (also known as project 28).’

Mr Ell also attached earlier correspondence related to his projects, closing by telling Mr Sartor he was looking forward to ‘a successful completion of this matter’.

About a year later in February 2007, Kings Forest was declared a state significant site under the controversial ‘Part 3A’ amendment to the planning act, by which Tweed Shire Council was sidelined as the consent authority, replaced by Mr Sartor and his department.

Tweed campaign

The court was told that other recipients of Mr Ell’s largesse included an election campaign under the banner ‘Tweed Directions’, which bankrolled a group of pro-development councillors in the council election of 2004 to the tune of $80,000.

Mr Molomby told Justice McCallum that the ‘vast bulk of donations’ to Tweed Directions was made by Ell’s company Leda Holdings Pty Ltd, which was involved in the two Tweed developments.

Mr Molomby also presented the court with a list of donations between October 2005 and December 2007 made by companies owned or co-owned by Mr Ell.

He accused Mr Ell of making donations to the NSW ALP via another of his companies, North Steyne Investments Pty Ltd, in order to conceal the real source of the money.

Mr Molomby said the list of donations only recorded ones to the NSW ALP and there were no federal political donations.

‘And who runs the planning? The state. He was trying really hard to buy whatever favours he could,’ he told the court.

Mr Ell claims Cr Milne defamed him in an email she sent to various newspapers including the former weekly The Tweed Echo (which was then a sister publication to Echonetdaily), The Sydney Morning Herald, and The Gold Coast Bulletin, as well as the ABC, other organisations and individuals.

The email linked Mr Ell to murdered standover man Michael McGurk and made comments about his large donations to pro-development councillors and the state government.

On Saturday The Sydney Morning Herald reported that in his statement of claim, Mr Ell said he had been ‘gravely injured’ by the McGurk allegations, which have brought him into ‘hatred, ridicule and contempt’.

The Tweed Echo published the email but without the reference to McGurk.

Influence

In her defence, Cr Milne argued ‘contextual truth’, essentially that Mr Ell did in fact try to influence planning decisions, and therefore that part of her email, according to the Herald report, ‘swamps any damage to Mr Ell’s reputation caused by any imputations about his connections to McGurk’.

‘Here [Mr Ell] is, a month after his regional manager has written seeking to have his site declared state significant, saying he was “very surprised” to hear that the minister hadn’t already heard of his application,’ Mr Molomby told the court, according to the SMH report.

‘He then encloses documents directly to the minister… documents that formed part of the application. That’s part of the expectations that he had, having engaged in the donation activity, including $100,000.’

This week’s Gazette of Law and Journalism reported on the case, saying it was ‘an unusual trial because neither Mr Ell nor Milne is giving evidence’ and Justice McCallum was ‘deciding the case as a judge alone, on the papers alone’.

The journal said Mr Ell pleaded six defamatory imputations for the email, sent on March 30, 2010, the first (a) being that he was ‘implicated by his own wrongful conduct in the murder of Mr McGurk’.

The second (b) was that he had ‘a scandalous association with the murdered man Mr McGurk. The third (c) imputation was that ‘he paid $100,000 bail for a person who was suspected by police of serious crimes of violence in order to advance his business interests’.

The fourth (d) imputation was that ‘he paid $100,000 bail for a person who was suspected by the police of serious crimes of violence because the plaintiff approved the use of violence in his business ventures’.

The fifth (e) was that ‘he paid $100,000 bail for services rendered by Mr McGurk as a standover man’; and the sixth (f) was that ‘he conducted his business with regard to property development by employing a person with a reputation for violence’.

But Cr Milne only pleaded one contextual imputation, namely that ‘as a developer the plaintiff has attempted to buy the favours of state government and the local council by making large donations to political parties and election campaigns’.

Justice McCallum, according to the gazette, found three of Mr Ell’s imputations had been conveyed in the email: (b), (c) and (f).

She also found that Cr Milne’s contextual imputation had also been conveyed.

But the gazette said the judge ruled after further argument that it wasn’t defamatory for bail to be paid, no matter the alleged crime, leaving Mr Ell with the two imputations in (b) and (f) to consider.

After a four-day hearing, Justice McCallum reserved her decision last Thursday.

 

 


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3 COMMENTS

  1. Fascinating report revealing yet again the lengths ‘developers’ will go to get a re-zoning windfall’. Once the public gives the ‘golden pen tick’ to re-zone we can then look forward to watching how Ell & co drip feed properties to the market in ‘staged releases’ in order to maintain high property prices. Sometimes they take 15 years to fulfill a 10,000 property development. We are the first generation to be forced to pay 40% of our income on somewhere to live. Well done Cr Milne is taking up the fight.

    • Karl Fitzgerald is right about land developers deliberate strategy of drip feed to keep up the price of new houselots (ie super profits for land developers). And then they blame government for delay and under supply. Government requirements for developer contributions to infrastructure are a convenient excuse for high prices. It really annoys me to see the way that 99.99% of media commentary on houselot development fails to test this industry spin. You can be sure that the failure of politicians to sweep it aside has little to do with political donations that are on record, or even the sumptuous lunches. Think – “Eddie Obeid”.

  2. And how much Donation did Ells pay to Katie Milne and her Party ? NOTHING ? Could it also be why such a big, wealthy man is hounding and pursuing an upright, honourable Councillor, rising to her feet fearlessly on behalf of all Tweed Residents who love living here, AS IT IS ?

    Shame on money-hungry Developers who come to this beautiful area because it is .. and then set about doing everything in their monied-power – and beyond – to destroy the very beauty that has supposedly drawn them here.

    And shame on the Councillors who blindly support them.

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