The dining room over-looking the boats bobbing in the Docklands’ marina was buzzing on the first evening in March last year. ”He’ll be the next premier,” whispered one of the Liberal Party donors as the special guest speaker, Victorian Planning Minister Matthew Guy, moved to the podium to address the $250 a head event. Federal Liberal MP Russell Broadbent watched on, having earlier acknowledged some of his old political backers in the room. They included the Calabrian-born businessman who owned the $4 million Docklands venue and who was considered by some of the attendees to be the most powerful man there.
This man’s name has been suppressed by a criminal court order. But he had, according to one attendee, ”put on the spread” for the Liberal Party. He had invited and paid for some of the guests, donated the use of the upmarket venue and arranged for the food and drinks to be subsidised. The fruits of the evening would go towards the campaign to win the federal seat of Bruce for Liberal candidate Emanuele Cicchiello, a school principal and former council mayor with jet black hair. Cicchiello was also at the venue, his shining white smile beaming as usual.
But some of those bidding hundreds of dollars for the charity items, which included a helicopter ride and a fancy dinner, did so not only to benefit the Liberal Party.
They also wanted to impress the host. The reason why can be partly found in a self-assessment he provided two decades before to detectives investigating allegations he was linked to a murder at Melbourne’s wholesale fruit and vegetable market.
”I am a man who is very respected at the market,” he told the police in 1992, while denying any knowledge of the murder, one of two killings he was linked to in the coroners’ court hearings but for which he would never be charged.
The most recent law enforcement assessments of the Calabrian businessman and Liberal Party donor, based on extensive police intelligence and the testimony of police informers, goes further. They place him at the apex of a secretive organisation that has concerned police for decades: Melbourne’s secretive Calabrian Honoured Society, or Mafia.
Politicians often attend fund-raising events with people they don’t know. But the story of how a suspected Mafia godfather came to host a night for the Liberals is extraordinary because many in the party knew all too well about his background and the corresponding risk that money he donated may be tainted.
The Docklands’ reception centre owner has always stood out. Back in the 1980s, when he was an associate of the then undisputed mafia godfather, Liborio Benvenuto, the handsome Italian’s lightly coloured hair and skin earned him the nickname ”Blondie” (which, due to the court suppression, is what Fairfax Media will call him).
Middle men (from top): Matthew Guy, Emanuele Cicchiello and Russell Broadbent. A confidential report written by Cicchiello’s campaign team would later describe the night as ”very successful” for the Liberals.
At the time, Benvenuto was the undisputed head of Melbourne’s Calabrian ”Onorata Societa”, or Honoured Society, a Mafia group whose origins lie in the towns of Calabria where Benvenuto and Blondie were born. Locally, a 1992 inquiry by the National Crime Authority found the group had morphed into a uniquely Australian organisation, often concerned with maintaining legitimate traditional cultural and family networks. It was from these networks that small groups of individuals would sporadically come together to engage in ”criminal conspiracies”.
Until his death in 1988, the markets were Benvenuto’s patch. Amid the colourful fruit and vegetable stalls, he presided over a lucrative racketeering operation that extracted unofficial taxes from vendors. This activity was mostly hidden, but a spate of murders linked to the market over several decades led to Mafia headlines splashed over newspaper front pages.
A review of old coronial files reveals that when he was questioned by homicide detectives in 1992 about his alleged involvement of one of these market murders, Blondie denied involvement and provided an alibi. He also said he had ”never heard” of the Honoured Society or the Mafia.
His denials wouldn’t stop his name hitting the papers. In 1993 and again in 1995, two coronial inquests heard allegations from several witnesses who implicated Blondie in the murders of two fruit and vegetable industry identities. In allegations dismissed by Blondie’s lawyers, the girlfriend of one of the murdered men claimed Blondie was ”next in line” to be the Mafia godfather.
Well-placed sources have told Fairfax Media that some time in the 1990s, Blondie and two others – a man known in Mafia circles as ”the butcher” and market identity and Mafia lieutenant Rosario Gangemi – formed a committee that assumed control of the Honoured Society.
In the late 1990s and early 2000s, Blondie continued to be dogged by public allegations about his alleged ties to organised crime. This time, it was police doing the accusing. After Blondie launched a campaign to convince the Howard government to grant a close criminal associate of Blondie a visa, police produced a statement to court exposing this associate’s violent criminal history. Police also implicated Blondie in ”a substantial number of [alleged] crimes, including murder, gunshot wounding and arson”.
Once again, the allegations led to no charges and a judge found they could not be corroborated as they were based on claims from unnamed and possibly unreliable police informers. Despite the bad press, Blondie began building a business empire throughout Victoria, stretching from the wholesale markets in Footscray to market gardens and supermarkets in Melbourne’s outer northern and southern suburbs and beyond. He also continued to maintain close ties to organised crime networks that were monitored by police.
Sources familiar with Blondie’s affairs say he gained equity in several food wholesalers facing financial pressure not only because of his business savvy but because of the ”obligation” some in his community felt towards him, along with his ability to offer ”protection” to business owners.
It’s understood his stake in the nationwide La Porchetta pizza chain was gained after Blondie helped resist a takeover of a franchise outlet by gangster Alphonse Gangitano. Blondie also sought involvement in politics, an interest apparently piqued by watching the operations of some of his NSW associates, including businessman Pat Sergi .
Sergi has previously been linked to the Calabrian Mafia in reports by authorities, and named as a money launderer for the mob in a 1979 royal commission. Sergi was recently called as a witness at the Independent Commission Against Corruption inquiry examining the nexus between colourful businessmen and the Liberal Party in NSW.
Blondie’s Liberal Party relationships in Victoria were formed some time after the mid-1990s, care of two existing donors (one was Blondie’s cousin) who ran produce businesses in Melbourne’s outer south-east. Blondie was soon attending political fund-raisers and charity events with a small group of politicians, including federal MP Russell Broadbent, state Liberal MP Ken Smith and Smith’s staffer and former long-time councillor, Neville Goodwin.
Blondie was usually accompanied at these events by well-connected Melbourne criminal lawyer and former chair of the Italian Chamber of Commerce, Joe Acquaro (court records show Acquaro was also Blondie’s adviser during his ongoing battle to win his criminal associate a visa). Both Blondie and Acquaro have declined to answer questions about their fund-raising activities.
But a source who observed the pair’s political activities says they were usually part of a small group of Calabrian businessmen who stood out. It’s understood that Broadbent played a key role in introducing this group to a range of Liberal luminaries, including Bruce Billson and Amanda Vanstone. When the group visited Federal Parliament to watch the then federal treasurer Peter Costello deliver a budget, another Italian businessman was overheard saying ”the market Mafia is here”.
”There is a perception among this group that if you give donations, you can acquire influence that helps you avoid bureaucracy. Some people give money because they have a genuine political creed. But [Blondie] isn’t interested in policy,” says the source.
It is unclear to what extent, if at all, the politicians who dealt with Blondie knew of his suspected influence in the underworld. Police, though, had few doubts. An underworld informer told the police around 2006 that Blondie was the boss of Melbourne’s Honoured Society, which included a criminal network spanning ”Shepparton, Mildura and Griffith” in NSW. A police briefing seen by Fairfax Media states: ”The Calabrian Mafia is well established in Victoria and has links to the Melbourne Fruit and Vegetable Market.”
”[Blondie] is very well respected within the Calabrian community and is regarded as being the leader of the organisation.” If Broadbent knew nothing of these details, he was certainly aware that Blondie had at least one very close criminal contact. Blondie’s associates had sought Broadbent’s help to lobby the Howard government to get this man a visa on humanitarian grounds, because he had a family in Australia and mental health issues.
In contrast, police had argued that the visa applicant should be deported as he had serious criminal and Mafia convictions in Italy and may have come to Australia to work as a hitman. Broadbent, along with three other Liberal MPs, lobbied immigration minister Amanda Vanstone to give the man a visa and she issued him with a temporary spouse visa on ”humanitarian grounds” in 2005. It was a decision the Liberal MPs would regret.
Three years later, in 2008, several of Blondie’s close associates were arrested for drug trafficking – including the visa applicant. A year later, in 2009, the visa recipient was charged with murder. That same year, a police complainant told federal agents that a group of Italian businessmen had sought to bribe the Liberal Party for years to help obtain this visa, sparking a police probe.
Throughout 2009, Broadbent was one of several Liberals investigated over allegations they had been improperly influenced by Blondie and his associates in connection with the visa case. The scandal made newspaper front page headlines and was reported extensively. The politicians all denied any wrongdoing, as did Blondie, and in late 2009 the federal police announced its political bribery probe would be closed due to insufficient evidence.
Still, federal agents had a small win. They tracked tens of thousands of dollars donated in the previous decade by Blondie and his fruit market associates, many of whom had never donated before and had seemingly no political interests. According to one person with inside knowledge, faced with fresh bad press throughout 2009 and early 2010, Blondie briefly became persona non grata in the political world. ”No one wanted to know him,” the source says.
His pariah status wouldn’t last. In 2012, he started a company called Waterfront Four Pty Ltd and bought a large Docklands reception centre, Melbourne Waterfront Venues, for $4 million. The company was controlled by Blondie, along with the criminal figure who had been granted the visa back in 2005. The third owner was a close relative of deceased Mafia boss Rosario Gangemi.
On a mild evening in March last year, the centre would serve as a site of political redemption for Blondie when he helped host the fund-raiser for the Liberals’ Bruce campaign of Cicchiello, who refused repeated requests from Fairfax Media to answer questions about the event. Several of the tables were arranged by Blondie and it is understood that one of the guests was his fellow suspected Mafia boss known as ”the butcher”.
Blondie’s involvement (which includes his free hiring of the centre and subsidising of the food) has never been declared to the Australian Electoral Commission. According to a Liberal source, this is because his individual donations would have fallen below the $12,100 threshold disclosure figure.
The star attraction, Victorian planning head Matthew Guy, has told Fairfax Media he gave a speech at the event because he was asked by Liberal colleagues, but that he had no idea who was on the guest list. Another attendee, Liberal MP Neale Burgess, claims the same. But others there, including Broadbent and Goodwin, can’t so easily plead ignorance.
Goodwin says he knows Blondie through previous political and charity fund-raisers and is aware of his alleged criminal ties, but has always found him a pleasant and polite businessman. Broadbent has also refused to answer questions, despite repeated approaches to his office over the past two months. But the issue of political funding can’t be so easily ignored.
Controversy surrounding the Liberal Party’s donors, both in Victoria and NSW, is fuelling a growing call for improved accountability of the nation’s political fund-raising regime. If secrecy is a rite of the Mafia, it shouldn’t be extended to its funding of politicians.