November 12 - 18, 2023: Issue 605
ICAC Finds City Of Canada Bay Council Mayor Corrupt: Recommends Removal From Civic Office - 4 Recommendations For The NSW Department Of Planning
Thursday 9 November 2023
The NSW Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) has found that City of Canada Bay Council mayor Angelo Tsirekas has engaged in serious corrupt conduct, and recommends that he be removed from civic office.
In its report released today, Investigation into the conduct of the City of Canada Bay Council mayor and others (Operation Tolosa), the Commission found that, between November 2015 and February 2019, Mr Tsirekas engaged in serious corrupt conduct by seeking and/or accepting benefits from developer I-Prosperity Group, and its agent Joseph Chidiac, who was a friend of Mr Tsirekas. These benefits included overseas flights and accommodation, to the value of at least $18,800, as an inducement or reward for Mr Tsirekas exercising his official functions to favour I-Prosperity’s interests affecting properties in Rhodes that came before the Council during periods when he was mayor. Mr Tsirekas also engaged in serious corrupt conduct by deliberately failing to disclose a conflict of interest arising from representatives of I-Prosperity and Mr Chidiac, when he knew he was required to do so.
The Commission is of the opinion that consideration should be given to the suspension of Mr Tsirekas from civic office with a view to his dismissal in relation to these serious corrupt conduct findings, and that prompt action is required in the public interest.
The Commission examined whether there was any evidence of Mr Tsirekas having unexplained wealth, which might indicate he received improper financial benefits. For example, Mr Tsirekas travelled overseas extensively (24 trips between April 2015 and July 2019) and in 2015/2016, he paid a deposit on a unit in Ashfield. Mr Tsirekas’ evidence in relation to his finances was inconsistent and uncorroborated and was rejected by the Commission. In particular, his evidence that his late father was the source of money was rejected.
The overseas travel included several trips to China, one of which was in January 2016 to attend the wedding of I-Prosperity director, Zhouxiang (Harry) Huang. This trip included accommodation at The Langham hotel and a visit to Nanjing with Mr Chidiac and I-Prosperity employees, visits to a nightclub and other expenses. The Commission is satisfied that the benefits extended to Mr Tsirekas (and Mr Chidiac) were paid for or ultimately met by I-Prosperity.
I-Prosperity had been acquiring properties at Rhodes since 2015. On 24 May 2016, I-Prosperity lodged its first planning proposal with the Council, and subsequently lodged three iterations of the proposal. Key events in the life of the proposal took place on 31 May 2016, 15 May 2018 and 19 February 2019. On 19 February 2019, the Council resolved to submit I-Prosperity’s planning proposal to the Department of Planning and Environment for gateway determination. At these times, Mr Tsirekas was mayor, and on no occasion when the planning proposal came before Council did he declare a conflict of interest. Ultimately, the proposal was refused via a gateway determination (by the then Department of Planning, Industry and Environment under delegated authority from the minister) in March 2021.
Both Mr Tsirekas and Mr Chidiac accepted that they have been close friends for many years, on Mr Tsirekas’ evidence since at least 2015. The Commission is satisfied that they have been close personal friends for many years, since at least that time, frequently socialising with one another and travelling overseas together on a number of occasions. Yet, Mr Tsirekas argued that he did not have any private interests, even when Mr Chidiac was working as an agent for I-Prosperity when it had planning matters before the Council. Mr Tsirekas, in effect, denied knowledge of what Mr Chidiac did for a job and the extent of Mr Chidiac’s relationship with I-Prosperity, and other developers, and the conflict of interest to which it gave rise. The Commission does not accept that argument.
Mr Tsirekas also told the Commission that he received funds or “loans” from others, including Mr Chidiac. In effect, he said this was to finance his overseas travel and the money was largely repaid after his property settlement in 2020. Mr Chidiac said that he paid airfare and accommodation expenses for Mr Tsirekas for a January 2016 trip to China, and during a trip to Lebanon in October that year. He said Mr Tsirekas repaid about $9,000 after his divorce proceedings were finalised and after he became aware of the Commission’s investigation. The Commission is satisfied that the evidence demonstrates that, from 2016 to July 2020, Mr Tsirekas had the benefit of what was, in effect, an interest-free loan from Mr Chidiac.
The Commission found that Mr Chidiac engaged in serious corrupt conduct by, between December 2015 and February 2019, providing benefits to Mr Tsirekas as a reward or inducement to favour his or I-Prosperity’s interests in relation to Council decisions regarding planning matters affecting I-Prosperity properties in Rhodes.
The Commission has made four corruption prevention recommendations to help the NSW Department of Planning and Environment prevent the recurrence of the conduct exposed in this investigation.
Mr Tsirekas resigned from the Council in June 2016, to contest the seat of Reid in that year’s federal election (he was unsuccessful, but was re-elected to Council in September 2017). During the campaign period, Mr Tsirekas was able to receive Commonwealth political donations, including from three individuals associated with I-Prosperity, who each donated $10,000. The Commission notes in the report that this raises the question as to whether he ought to have a made a non-pecuniary conflict of interest declaration at meetings dealing with such applicants.
One of the Commission’s corruption prevention recommendations is that the Department amends the Model Code of Conduct for Local Councils in NSW to specifically require councillors to disclose political donations received under electoral laws of the Commonwealth, or another state or territory, as non-pecuniary conflicts of interest.
Another recommendation concerns the Department taking steps to require councils to proactively release relevant business papers, correspondence and reports where confidentiality no longer applies.
The Commission seeks the advice of the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) on whether any prosecution should be commenced. The DPP determines whether any criminal charges can be laid and conducts all prosecutions. The Commission is of the opinion that consideration should be given to obtaining the advice of the DPP about the prosecution of Mr Tsirekas, Mr Chidiac and Joseph Jacob for various offences.
The Commission held a public inquiry, as part of this investigation, over 30 sitting days from 26 April to 4 July 2022. Then Chief Commissioner the Hon Peter Hall KC presided at the public inquiry at which 20 witnesses gave evidence. Final substantive submissions were received on 19 June 2023, signalling completion of the public inquiry period.
Statement On Operation Tolosa
November 9 2023
Statement from the Minister for Local Government, Ron Hoenig:
I have reviewed the report released today by the Independent Commission against Corruption (ICAC) in relation to Operation Tolosa.
Having considered ICAC’s recommendation I have suspended Angelo Tsirekas from civic office with a view to his dismissal for serious corrupt conduct effective immediately.
Should Cr Tsirekas be dismissed from his civic office, there are processes in place that would enable City of Canada Bay councillors to fill the position of mayor for the remainder of the current term of council.
The prosecution or otherwise of Cr Tsirekas and other people named in the report is a matter for the Director of Public Prosecutions.
The Government will be considering ICAC’s corruption prevention recommendations contained in the report and will respond in due course.
Four Corruption Prevention Recommendations To Help The NSW Department Of Planning And Environment
That the Department of Planning and Environment:
- amends the Model Code of Conduct for Local Councils in NSW to expand the stand-alone categories of interests that require disclosure in written returns to include financial dealings conducted via trusts and partnerships
- produces a fact sheet and updates guidance material for councillors to provide details about their disclosure obligations to include financial dealings conducted via trusts and partnerships.
That the Department of Planning and Environment:
- amends the Model Code of Conduct for Local Councils in NSW to specifically require councillors to disclose political donations received under electoral laws of the Commonwealth, or another state or territory, as non-pecuniary conflicts of interest
- issues a circular to assist councillors in the disclosure of political donations, including those received in other jurisdictions, as non-pecuniary conflicts of interest.
That the Department of Planning and Environment:
- takes steps to require councils to proactively release relevant business papers, correspondence and reports where confidentiality under Part 1 of Chapter 4 of the Local Government Act 1993 no longer exists, either via initiating an amendment to legislation or a regulation, and/or amending the Model Code of Meeting Practice for Local Councils in NSW and The Closure of Council Meetings to the Public guidelines
- advises councils of an appropriate framework for considering the release of information previously considered confidential.
That the Department of Planning and Environment limits the ability of a council to make decisions to advance planning matters at meetings in the absence of an assessment report considering relevant matters and an associated recommendation.
These recommendations are made pursuant to s 13(3)(b) of the ICAC Act and, as required by s 111E of the ICAC Act, will be furnished to the Department of Planning and Environment (including the Office of Local Government) and the responsible ministers.
As required by s 111E(2) of the ICAC Act, the Department must inform the Commission in writing within three months (or such longer period as the Commission may agree to in writing) after receiving the recommendations whether it proposes to implement any plan of action in response to the recommendations and, if so, details of the proposed plan of action.
In the event a plan of action is prepared, the Department is required to provide a written report to the Commission of its progress in implementing the plan 12 months after informing the Commission of the plan. If the plan has not been fully implemented by then, a further written report must be provided 12 months after the first report.
The Commission will publish the Department’s response to its recommendations, any plan of action and progress reports on its implementation on the Commission’s website at www.icac.nsw.gov.au.