Nick McKenzie, Richard Baker, Royce Millar 23 May 2014 Brisbane Times
Waterfront Venues Melbourne. Photo: Ken Irwin
The suspected Mafia godfather of Melbourne helped bankroll a Liberal Party marginal federal seat campaign in the 2013 election, raising the prospect that the proceeds of crime have flowed into Liberal coffers.
The alleged crime figure’s fundraising occurred despite Liberal politicians knowing of his suspected involvement in organised crime and in a previous political donation scandal investigated by federal police.
A Fairfax Media investigation can reveal the alleged Mafia boss helped host the “Bruce Campaign Fundraising Dinner”, which a Liberal Party memo later described as a “very successful” event, at his Docklands reception centre on March 1 last year. Federal Liberal MP Russell Broadbent, who has known about the donor’s alleged crime ties for several years having been implicated in the 2009 donations scandal, was at the Docklands event with the suspected Mafia boss.
The guest speaker at the event was Victorian Planning Minister Matthew Guy. Also at the fund-raiser was Liberal candidate for Bruce Emanuele Cicchiello, long-time Liberal operative and former Bass Coast mayor Neville Goodwin and state Liberal MP for Hastings Neale Burgess.
The alleged Mafia boss has been previously described by police in court as a person allegedly involved in “murder, gunshot wounding and arson”. He has been named as a suspected hitman in two coronial inquests in the 1990s and identified in a recent police intelligence briefing as the leader of a ”well established” Calabrian Mafia cell in Melbourne that remains a powerful presence at Victoria’s wholesale fruit and vegetable market.
The Liberal donor has close associations with Melbourne’s senior Italian organised crime identities, including an alleged drug trafficker who co-owns the Docklands function complex where the Liberal event was held, Waterfront Venues Melbourne.
This alleged drug trafficker was given a visa in 2005 after the suspected Mafia boss lobbied and donated to the Liberal Party as part of a campaign to have the Howard government overturn its decision to deport the man on character grounds.
Allegations from a Liberal insider that the donations amounted to a bribery attempt were investigated by the federal police in 2009 in a probe that generated significant publicity. The alleged Mafia boss and his associate who was granted a visa cannot be named due to a criminal court suppression order.
Liberal sources confirmed that hire of Waterfront Venues Melbourne was donated by the alleged Mafia boss for the $250-a-head dinner. Food and drink was also heavily subsidised. Expensive items were also auctioned off at the event, including a helicopter ride for two and a dinner.
No specific records of the fund-raiser have been lodged with the Australian Electoral Commission, with Liberal sources saying the individual donations made as part of the event were under the $12,100 disclosure threshold.
Despite being the subject of numerous organised crime probes, the alleged mob boss has never been charged with a criminal offence and denies any involvement in organised crime or political bribery. The federal police bribery probe was closed after gathering insufficient evidence.
The revelations come as the Independent Commission Against Corruption probes donations by colourful business identities to Liberal politicians in NSW.
Mr Broadbent declined to respond to repeated requests from Fairfax Media for comment. The Liberal MP previously lobbied the Howard government to give the suspected Mafia figure’s associate a visa, despite authorities arguing he should be deported because he was a criminal.
The figure was issued a visa on humanitarian grounds in 2005. Mr Broadbent was one of four Liberal MPs who lobbied to overturn the man’s deportation who were investigated by federal police in their 2009 probe.
In 2012, the crime figure and the suspected Mafia boss took over the Docklands venue where the Bruce campaign fund-raiser was later held. A third owner of Waterfront Venues Melbourne is a relative of late Mafia godfather Rosario Gangemi, who died in 2008 and was previously identified by police as a top Mafia leader allegedly involved in murder and racketeering at Melbourne’s fruit and vegetable wholesale market.
Fairfax first sought to question Mr Broadbent in 2009 about why he had attended fund-raisers with the alleged Mafia figure and his associates. It is believed that Mr Broadbent’s relationship with the alleged Mafia figure is more extensive than publicly known.
The pair are believed to have met on several occasions in the company of a small number of other donors, with Mr Broadbent having facilitated meetings between the man and senior state and federal Liberal Party figures, including Bruce Billson and Amanda Vanstone.
State Liberal MP and former lower house Speaker Ken Smith, and his former electorate staffer and ex-Bass Coast mayor Neville Goodwin have also previously been involved in fund-raising and charity events with the alleged Mafia boss dating back to the mid 1990s.
The alleged Mafia figure has helped raise thousands of dollars for the Liberals in Melbourne’s outer south-east, where he is perceived to hold influence over voters of Calabrian heritage. Asked about his association with the alleged Mafia boss, Mr Smith said: “He’s never asked me for anything. I take people as I find them.”
The suspected Mafia boss has a business empire spanning Victoria, including stalls at the wholesale fruit and vegetable market, property developments, supermarkets and involvement in the nationwide La Porchetta pizza chain. He has also had dealings with NSW Liberal Party donors, including real estate agent Pat Sergi. Mr Sergi, named in a 1979 royal commission as a money launderer for the Mafia, was recently called as a witness at the NSW ICAC hearings into Liberal Party fund-raising.
A spokeswoman for Mr Guy said the minister “was invited to attend the [Docklands] function by the Liberal campaign for Bruce. The minister had no role in organising the event or its guest list.” Mr Goodwin confirmed he has known the owner of the venue for several years, while Mr Burgess said he attended the Docklands function as a guest of a prominent market gardener in his electorate who had taken a table at the event, and did not know who owned the venue.