A Queensland mayor has been referred to the Office of the Independent Assessor (OIA) following an investigation of goings-on at Council including attempts to undermine his CEO.
The Queensland corruption watchdog late last week released its report on Operation Yabber, which investigated the actions of City of Gold Coast Council Mayor Tom Tate, his political advisor Wayne Moran and Council’s CEO Dale Dickson.
The investigation considered a range of allegations including that the Mayor misused his powers to undermine his CEO after his chief of staff Mr Moran meddled in council decisions and tried to get favourable treatment for mates.
It also investigated the alleged misuse of council funds by Cr Tate.
The Queensland Crime and Corruption Commission concluded that “in relation to Moran, the perception that his friends and associates were the beneficiaries of his position at the GCCC was bad enough. However, it is clear that this was also the reality.”
It also concluded that Cr Tate ordered his CEO to halt disciplinary action against Mr Moran, “effectively protecting the Chief of Staff from potential disciplinary action”.
The CCC said it did not find “serious and systematic” issues or any grounds for criminal prosecution, but noted the investigation highlighted the need for reforms to reduce corruption risks.
“Whilst Operation Yabber did not identify such serious and systemic issues found in recent CCC investigations into other councils, it did once again highlight the impacts of not properly declaring and managing conflicts of interests,” the report said.
The CCC recommended amending the local government act to clarify management of advisors and to ensure mayoral directions could not be used to undermine CEOs.
Relationship with developers
Cr Tate appointed Mr Moran as his chief of staff after Mr Moran worked as campaign manager for the mayor’s 2012 election campaign.
Mr Moran’s subsequent actions as CoS began to raise alarm bells, the CCC said, especially in relation to evidence of favourable treatment for some developers.
“Between 2012 and 2019, there were numerous examples of Company A directors seeking favour from Moran directly,” the CCR said, with Mr Moran saying he was “pursuing this one for you mate” and “I’ll stick my nose in”.
The CCC said council staff provided evidence that Mr Moran would often contact GCCC departments wanting to know about developments, or seek meetings with developers himself.
“The CEO said he considered Moran a high-risk individual and there had been quite a few occasions where Moran had involved himself in development-related issues, advocating certain outcomes and behaviours expected from the Council,” the report said.
The CCC also found evidence of a close relationship with Mr Moran and the director of “Company B” who had carried out a lot of large projects in the City.
Mr Moran, who apparently had planned a holiday to the Whitsundays with the director, helped the businessman further his interests in council, the CCC said.
Preventing disciplinary action
Between 2013-15 Mr Dickson in his role as CEO attempted to discipline Mr Moran for his failure to declare conflicts of interest. Cr Tate stepped in to prevent the action when Mr Moran refused to come to the table, the report said.
“Many councillors believed the mayoral power was being misused and that … Moran was untouchable and free to do and act however he wanted,” the report said.
“This created an unhealthy environment which may have deterred staff at GCCC from reporting misconduct against those who were closely aligned with the Mayor, believing the Mayor would intervene to protect those close to him.”
“While Tate’s conduct does not meet the threshold for criminal prosecution, his actions could amount to misconduct pursuant to s150L of the Local Government Act 2009. The CCC has, therefore, referred the matter to the OIA. Moran’s conduct has been referred to the CEO for appropriate disciplinary action,” the CCC said.
Interference in operational matters
The CCC said it also received information about Mr Moran interfering in council operational matters.
It said in 2017 and 18 Mr Moran attempted to waive food license fees for a company that gifted him tickets to a major event on the Gold Coast.
“The assistance Moran attempted to provide some event participants to avoid paying for a food licence (as required by Council policy) after he had received the gift is a matter of concern,” the CCC said.
The CCC said it received complaints alleging that Cr Tate had an inappropriate relationship with the lawyer of a Chinese developer, voted on council matters involving that developer and failed to declare on his Register of Interests (ROI) flights and accommodation provided to him to Beijing.
The matter has been referred to the OIA.
The watchdog also investigated claims that Cr Tate bought luggage, Gold Coast Titans membership, and two selfie sticks, including one for his daughter, on council credit cards. It said there was also evidence of Cr Tate using official expenditure to make donations up to ten times the amount permitted under policy.
Mayor welcomes investigation
Cr Tate said there was always friction between the administration and policy arms of a council and that he intervened in a “tussle in the family” between Mr Moran and Mr Dickson to “move on for the betterment of the City”.
He described the report as “a fantastic outcome” that gave him a clean bill of health and found no evidence of corruption or criminal conduct.
“It’s a bit like this. When you know you’re going to have a thorough examination like a colonoscopy … they’re going to be real thorough. You wake up and he gives you a clean bill of health, couple of polyps … get it out, all examined, happy as,” he told reporters last Friday.
He had paid back the cost of his daughter’s selfie stick, he said.
Queensland’s peak body for local government also welcomed the finding of no criminal conduct and said it was now time to move on.
“We need to find a balance between continual investigation and review and enabling councils to get on with the job,” LGAC CEO Greg Hallam said.
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