Fraud charges laid against mayor and seven councillors
ANOTHER major Queensland council is facing the sack with the majority of its councillors suspended and facing criminal charges amid a corruption probe on an unprecedented scale.
The state's corruption watchdog yesterday charged seven Logan councillors and suspended mayor Luke Smith with fraud over the sacking of whistleblower chief executive officer Sharon Kelsey.
It leaves just four councillors standing - not enough to hold council meetings - triggering Local Government Minister Stirling Hinchliffe yesterday to seek advice on whether to dissolve the council.
Part of that advice would include any potential impact on the date of the next local government elections, due in March 2020, he said.
Crime and Corruption Commission boss Alan MacSporran yesterday described the charges against the eight politicians as unprecedented, saying the perception was that "the sector is on the nose".
"This is the first time to our knowledge in the 30-year history of the agency that eight elected officials from the same public administration have been the subject of such charges," he said. "It is one of the most significant investigations this agency has ever carried out and is a reminder of the importance of having an independent agency dedicated to combating major crime and public sector corruption for the benefit of Queenslanders."
The charges come less than a year after Ipswich City Council was fired in the wake of a corruption probe that left 16 people on charges, including Mayor Andrew Antoniolli and former mayor Paul Pisasale.
Other state councils remain under the gaze of corruption officials, including the second and third biggest - Gold Coast City Council and Moreton Bay Regional Council.
The latest charges centre on the sacking of Ms Kelsey just seven months after she was appointed to lead the council. She was sacked in a controversial 5-7 vote in February last year.
Mr MacSporran yesterday took the "unusual" step of fronting the media over the charges due to the "significant public interest" in the 18-month-long investigation, which he said was ongoing.
He detailed allegations that Smith and the councillors had committed fraud by dishonestly "causing a detriment" to Ms Kelsey to the value of at least $100,000 in lost wages.
They allegedly "plotted" to sack Ms Kelsey, who had reported allegations of corruption against Smith to the CCC.
The councillors charged are Russell Lutton, Steve Swenson, Cherie Dalley, Laurie Smith, Phil Pidgeon, Trevina Schwartz and Jennie Breene. The fraud charge carries a maximum penalty of 20 years imprisonment.
Smith, 49, a former television cameraman, is also on two misconduct charges.
The CCC alleges he started a "dishonest" probation review into Ms Kelsey and interfered in the recruitment process of another staffer, who was allegedly improperly given a senior role at council.
Smith himself was not at the council meeting where Ms Kelsey was sacked - he was under a Queensland Industrial Relations Commission order not to attend.
But Ms Kelsey has alleged in ongoing legal action in the QIRC over her dismissal that Smith and the seven acted in alliance to sack her in retaliation for her CCC complaint.
QIRC documents showed six of the councillors and Smith had exchanged a series of secret exchanges over the WhatsApp encrypted mobile phone messaging platform about her future at council.
The messages were exchanged over groups named "Fab 7" and "Team Awesome".
Smith is already defending charges of perjury and official corruption over allegations about his dealings with a major donor and developer.
The CCC alleges he agreed to receive a luxury power boat from a donor for helping with their proposed Springwood hotel development, then later sold the boat for $39,000.
He was suspended a year ago, alongside councillor Stacey McIntosh, who is defending an unrelated fraud charge in the Brisbane District Court that predates her election.
Attempts by The Courier-Mail to obtain comment from Smith and the councillors yesterday were unsuccessful.
Cr Schwarz has hired criminal lawyer Terry O'Gorman, who yesterday said Schwarz would "vigorously defend the charge" and denied any wrongdoing.
Local Government Association of Queensland chief executive Greg Hallam said it was a "worrying development" that the CCC was using the criminal code in what was an "industrial matter" ahead of a decision in the QIRC next week.
But Mr MacSporran yesterday said its investigation was separate to the QIRC case.
He also referred to the councillors not involved in Ms Kelsey's sacking - Darren Power, Jon Raven, Laurie Koranski, Lisa Bradley and Stacey McIntosh. He said they had "stood up" about perceived corruption. Cr Power said it was bittersweet that they now faced losing their jobs in a dismissal.
Mr Hinchliffe said the Logan Council issues "did not involve the deep-seated concerns around culture" that existed at Ipswich Council.