Integrity Commission’s adverse report on former councillor

NOTE: Because the following matter includes references to the owner of New Norfolk and Derwent Valley News, it is published here in full, without alteration and without prejudice.

Integrity Commission CEO Michael Easton has spoken about the misconduct risks posed by links between councillors and property developers. His comments come after the Commission tabled the findings of Investigation Fisher in State Parliament today.

Investigation Fisher was an own-motion investigation undertaken by the Integrity Commission into the relationship between a former councillor at Derwent Valley Council, Paul Belcher, and Roostam Sadri, a local property developer.

The investigation found that, as a councillor, Mr Belcher agitated for Mr Sadri’s interests and pressured council employees, while Mr Belcher had a personal and financial association with Mr Sadri. Mr Belcher also received $5000 from Mr Sadri when running for council. Mr Belcher used at least part of this gift for his re-election campaign.

“Without systemic change the same misconduct risks which drove the issues uncovered by this investigation are liable to repeat themselves,” Mr Easton said. “This is why the Commission has also tabled a research paper calling for legislative reform.”

The Research Paper, titled Managing Conflicts of Interest Between Local Government Councillors and Property Developers (PDF, 1.3 MB), recommends that the Tasmanian Local Government Act be amended to ensure councillors are required to routinely disclose all of their relevant personal interests.

The Paper also recommends that the scope of an interest that may cause a conflict under the Local Government Act be widened to include both pecuniary (financial) and non-pecuniary conflicts of interest. Currently, the management of non-pecuniary interests in council meetings is only addressed in the Model Code of Conduct, and not in legislation.

As occurs in Queensland, the Commission recommends that other councillors at the council meeting where an interest is declared should decide how the conflict will be managed – not just the councillor declaring the conflict themselves. “Often the least suitable person to assess whether or not someone has a conflict is the person with the conflict themselves. Our suggestion allows for a more modern and mature approach to the management of declared interests,” Mr Easton said.

The Paper also called for all council candidates to be required to disclose campaign donations – not just sitting councillors as is currently the case.

“The work of our investigators in uncovering this misconduct was exceptional and deserves to be praised for its thoroughness and diligence,” Mr Easton said. “The matter shows the integrity and justice system working hand-in-hand. Our investigation identified potential criminal offences arising from breaching the confidentiality provisions in the Local Government Act 1993. These were referred to the Director of Local Government and successfully prosecuted. We have identified systemic improvements that we believe the government should consider.”

“We believe these reforms will not only help increase public confidence in the system but also protect people engaged in public life at the local government level,” Mr Easton said.
Background facts

This investigation was what the Integrity Commission Act 2009 (Tas) terms an own-motion investigation meaning it was brought about by the Commission itself, not as a result of a complaint.

The initial information sparking this action was a referral from the Office of Local Government highlighting the links between the councillor and the developer at the centre of this investigation.

Tabling of a detailed Research Paper in State Parliament containing recommendations for legislative reforms in conjunction with an Investigation Report highlights the Integrity Commission’s aim to improve public sector conduct through systemic change, while dealing with individual cases of misconduct.

In August 2022, Mr Belcher pleaded guilty to two breaches of section 338A(1)(b) of the Local Government Act 1993. He was fined $2000 and banned from running for any council for five years.

Media release by Michael Easton, Chief Executive Officer

Report 1 of 2022 summary

Description

A summary report of own-motion Investigation Fisher, into any misconduct committed by former Derwent Valley Council Councillor Paul Belcher relating to his relationship with a property developer.

Description

This is a report of an own-motion investigation into any misconduct committed by then Derwent Valley Council Councillor Paul Belcher or other public officers, in relation to their contact with Roostam Sadri, a property developer. In July and August 2020, Commission staff received information from the Office of Local Government about then Councillor Belcher’s connection with Mr Sadri.

Our investigation showed evidence of sharing of confidential information by Councillor Belcher. Subsequently, the Board extended the scope of the investigation to consider any misconduct committed by Councillor Belcher relating to sharing confidential Derwent Valley Council (Council) information, especially with Damian Bester, a former councillor and local journalist.

The investigation found that then Councillor Belcher failed to disclose or manage a conflict of interest arising from his association with Mr Sadri. It also found that Councillor Belcher agitated for Mr Sadri’s interests and pressured Council employees on behalf of Mr Sadri, while Councillor Belcher had a personal and financial association with Mr Sadri.

This was a conflict of interest between his role as a councillor and his personal interests. Councillor Belcher also received $5,000 from Mr Sadri when Councillor Belcher was running for council. Councillor Belcher used at least part of this gift for his re-election campaign.

Councillor Belcher resigned from Council in December 2021. Some of the information we found about Councillor Belcher sharing confidential Council information was shared with the Office of Local Government. In August 2022, Councillor Belcher pleaded guilty to two breaches of section 338A(1)(b)of the Local Government Act 1993.

We found no evidence that any other public officers engaged in misconduct relating to contact with Mr Sadri. The systems issues that relate to this investigation are covered in detail in the accompanying Research Report (PDF, 1.3 MB), which contains a range of recommendations to address gaps in the current legislative instruments.

NOTE: New Norfolk and Derwent Valley News has commissioned an independent journalist to report on this matter for the next print edition of New Norfolk and Derwent Valley News, to be published on October 7.

4 Comments

    1. It’s in there. There’s at least four different versions of the report (media release, executive summary, short version, long version) and not all of them agree with each other.
      Cheers,
      Damian

  1. “Councillor Belcher relating to sharing confidential Derwent Valley Council (Council) information, especially with Damian Bester, a former councillor and local journalist.” So can I ask, for the sake of integrity, why was this not brought to the attention of the Mayor of the day or the General Manager by Damien Bester?

    1. Hi Anonymous, Paul Belcher’s requests for advice and feedback were treated confidentially.
      Cheers,
      Damian

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