House of cards tumbled: What burst open council scandal
A crooked landfill contractor's alleged fraudulent dealings with a racing official led corruption investigators to bust open the Fitzgerald-era level corruption scandal in Queensland's councils.
The Courier-Mail can reveal the Ipswich council probe was triggered after investigators looking into allegedly fraudulent deals involving a racing bureaucrat stumbled on information drawing them to the fast-growing city on Brisbane's outskirts.
It ignited a fast-paced investigation that put the city's corrupt mayor Paul Pisasale and chief executive officer behind bars, led to the sacking of the entire council and sparked a statewide integrity overhaul.
The fuse was lit after Racing Queensland officials began looking into dealings between ex-New South Wales cop and landfill contractor Wayne Francis Innes, 60, and a Racing Queensland bureaucrat involved in procurement.
They had been looking into Innes involvement in contracts for racetrack works in 2014 and 2015.
But they stumbled on something much bigger.
Innes' dealings with Ipswich council soon came to the attention of the officials, and suspicions of his corrupt dealings were passed to the Crime and Corruption Commission.
He was a frequent visitor to the city and would regularly make phone calls relating to the council.
The intelligence led the CCC in October 2016 to mobilise a team of detectives to launch its top-secret Operation Windage investigation, and eventually, its hugely popular mayor Paul Pisasale, 69.
Pisasale and corrupt CEO Carl Wulff had already emerged from past corruption probes unscathed.
But unlike previous investigations, this time the entire house of cards would tumble.
Detectives rolled out the full gamut of policing tools, ranging from coercive hearings, phone intercepts, wiring up informants to tape conversations and surveillance across states.
Innes would quickly turn informant, spilling the beans to the CCC on his corrupt dealings and even agreeing to wear a wire to try covertly catch-out council's former crooked CEO Carl Wulff.
He was "the first defendant to co-operate with the CCC investigation" and agree to covertly record a conversation with Wulff at a cafe in September 2017," a statement of facts in the later corruption case in the District Court noted.
So too would his partner in crime, well-connected businessman and former lobbyist Wayne Myers, a decade-long friend of Pisasale who socialised with Wulff on the golf course.
Myers, a former mate of the late Labor treasurer Terry Mackenroth, had set up an introduction between Innes and Wulff in 2011.
After learning of the CCC investigation, Myers agree to wear a wire and covertly record the Scotland-born Wulff, now 68, at an Eight Mile Plains pub in September 2017.
At the meeting he obtained "incontrovertible evidence about Wulff's guilt," Myers' lawyer told the Brisbane District Court during his 2018 trial.
Wulff had reiterated they should stick to their cover story the corrupt dealing was really a "legitimate consultancy arrangement".
He even slid Myers a handwritten note containing the cover story to Myers, who passed to police.
Despite Myers' assistance, he would serve six months in jail over the corrupt deal, which amounted to payments of about $115,000. Wulff was also convicted over a separate corrupt deal.
He was hit with a five-year prison term, suspended after 20 months.
Innes, meanwhile, pleaded guilty to offences including official corruption, fraud, misconduct in public office and forgery relating to dealings with Racing Queensland and Ipswich Council.
His co-operation with the CCC resulted in him obtaining immunity from prosecution over the corrupt deal with Wulff and Myers, but Innes pleaded guilty to a second corrupt deal.
He was sentenced to four years' prison in 2019, suspended after 12 months.
In sentencing Innes, Judge Deborah Richards said the contractor exploited his friendship with a Racing Queensland worker to obtain "inside information about project budgets and works to gain a commercial advantage over his competitors.
He also forged higher-priced quotes under the names of other companies for projects he was vying for work on. But she considered the Ipswich council dealings "more serious," saying Innes fostered relationships with council officials "to obtain a commercial advantage."
The CCC net soon widened beyond the corrupt dealings to ensnare Pisasale and others.
Pisasale appeared at the CCC's Operation Belcarra public hearings into issues around the 2016 council hearings in April 2017.
He was questioned about how he manages any conflicts of interests with donors, who tipped $220,000 into his 2016 campaign.
Pisasale responded by calling for a funding model where politicians get paid for votes so the "poor old developer" would not be "accused of trying to buy the vote."
Pisasale by then had already faced CCC scrutiny multiple times, including in 2014, when he responded to questions about an investigation into his donations to say: "If I've done something wrong, just put me in jail."
Unknown to Pisasale, this time, his every move was being watched, with the CCC tapping his phone and putting him under surveillance on council-funded interstate pleasure trips.
In one phone conversation, the mayor allegedly asked a developer to organise a "threesome" for him with prostitutes in Melbourne.
He had a free ticket to a Bruce Springsteen concert in the city, and had asked a developer to email about a fictitious business meeting to coincide with the trip.
The politician was being watched by Victorian corruption officials when he met with Melbourne developer Chris Pinzone at Melbourne's Westin Hotel.
He had arranged to meet celebrity chef Jamie Oliver during the trip to hand him a gift from the city.
While Pisasale missed the meeting with the chef, police prosecutors alleged he did meet with a prostitute "JoJo", who prosecutors allege was arranged for him by Pinzone.
It was on the same day he was handed a bag with $50,000 cash, which he was stopped with at Melbourne Airport the next day.
Pisasale has not been charged with any offence over the money, which his barrister friend Sam Di Carlo said the then-mayor was carrying as a favour for an unrelated client's settlement.
It marked an end to the covert CCC operation, with Pisasale now coming under direct pressure.
He would phone his former mistress Kaitlyn Moore, who was 33 years' Pisasale's junior, from the airport in distress.
Ms Moore had been in a relationship with the married politician for about four years. The businesswoman later gave evidence against her former lover, telling investigators Pisasale had phoned her "crying and overwhelmed" after being stopped with the cash at the airport.
She also told of the moment he realised it was game over one night as the CCC investigation intensified, telling her: "I'm fu**ed, I'm fu**ed," she later recounted to investigators.
The once fast-talking, energetic mayor had by then become a desperate man. As his life spiralled out of control, he made a bizarre attempt to secretly talk to Ms Moore, investigators were told.
Ms Moore had been walking down the back of her property one day with an associate of Pisasale when the former mayor jumped out of some bushes to try talk to her, she told the CCC.
She would tell investigators about dealings Pisasale had with developers and businessmen.
By early June in 2017 - about three weeks after Pisasale was stopped at Melbourne airport - the noose had tightened and the CCC executed search warrants on his house and council chambers.
He resigned immediately, but would break the news to the public next day in bizarre fashion.
The mayor, who had long suffered multiple sclerosis, announced his resignation at a now infamous press conference at St Andrew's Hospital in Ipswich, donning a hospital gown and socks.
He blamed an MS attack, telling media: "Sometimes you think you're bulletproof..when multiple sclerosis starts affecting your judgment and your ability to do your job 100 per cent, it's time to look after it."
There was no mention of the investigation or being stopped at the airport.
That would emerge hours later, with the CCC confirming the raid and ongoing investigation.
Pisasale checked into a New Farm mental health clinic. One of his was a developer.
Part of the prosecution case against Pisasale related to secret commissions from that developer linked to an Ipswich land deal.
Details of the mayor's hedonistic secret life would also soon begin to surface.
Pisasale's former full-time council driver Stephen Potts went public with allegations he had driven the mayor to massage parlours and brothels across the city.
The mayor's spectacular downfall was gathering pace.
He was arrested in mid-2017 and taken to the police watchhouse, where he was charged with extortion and other offences.
Tired and crumpled, he was released from the watchhouse the next day to a swarm of media.
"Sexpert" and serial political candidate Patricia Peterson, who described herself as a friend, was waiting outside the watchhouse to greet him.
Pisasale's defence team in the extortion case painted a picture of a man whose weakness for women led to his extortion charges.
He had begun seeing Chinese escort, Yutian "Angela" Li, who had poured out her heart about being left broken hearted by her taxi driver ex-boyfriend, who she claimed had lied about plans to marry her.
Pisasale had met Li in 2017 after a massage was arranged by Di Carlo, the court heard.
In recordings of phone calls played to the Brisbane District Court, the then-mayor spoke to Di Carlo about how Li was "in the wrong trade."
"Oh the first night I f---ed her was good, but she's so naive," Pisasale told Di Carlo in the call, adding "when you come back there is good photos of her."
Pisasale's defence argued a later plot between Li and Pisasale to "punish" her ex-boyfriend was the product of the politician being a "sucker for a damsel in distress."
But a Brisbane District Court jury in 2019 thought it looked more like Pisasale was standing over the Sydney taxi driver and they convicted the former Ipswich mayor, his lawyer Cameron James McKenzie and Li of extortion last year.
The court heard during the trial that the former loved Ipswich icon posed as a telemarketer named George Robinson and as a private investigator to extort money for Li from the taxi driver.
Pisasale accused the cab driver of deceiving Li, who was also jailed for extortion, into thinking they would marry. He threatened he would be sued for $200,000 if he didn't make amends.
Li and Pisasale were heard in intercepted phone calls plotting to "punish" the man before the ex-mayor phoned the cab driver.
Pisasale told the man that Li had incurred expenses to "find out the truth" about his marital status.
In one intercepted call played during the trial, Di Carlo asks Pisasale about his night with Li: "Did she put her hand on your leg?"
"Yeah she did, very nice," Pisasale replied, referring to Li.
Di Carlo then tells Pisasale: "I told her to give you the girlfriend experience."
"I don't think she's done it very often," Pisasale replies in the recording played to the court.
Pisasale later says he likes "helping people" and wants to assist Li, who allegedly came to Australia for the man she later found out was married.
Li then told Pisasale "you need to be punishing my ex-boyfriend".
Pisasale told the taxi driver at one point during the call that he "knows the Immigration Minister".
Pisasale said hiring a private investigator had cost Li between $6000 and $7000 and that Mr Li would receive a letter, the court was told.
"Are you prepared to pay for some of the costs that it has cost her - because it has cost her a lot of money to find out the truth," he told the man.
Pisasale then asked Ipswich solicitor Cameron McKenzie to send a letter, telling him that he had posed as a private investigator.
McKenzie had emailed a letter demanding $8400, which included $6100 for a private investigator.
Taking to the witness box in the Brisbane District Court on the third day of his extortion trial, the former Ipswich mayor told the court he met Li when Mr Di Carlo told him "he had a girl that was going to give me two hours of massage" in January 2017.
"He just told me he'd organised a girl for me. She was very nice and she was new to the business," he said.
Pisasale told the jury from the stand telling the Sydney taxi driver he was a private investigator was better than admitting he was the mayor of Ipswich.
"I was trying to find out the truth and I really didn't want to say I was the mayor of Ipswich," Mr Pisasale said from the witness stand, adding he just wanted the man to do the "right thing" by Li because she was the "victim in all of this".
When Pisasale was first charged with extortion in 2017 he told reporters he would contest the allegations levelled against him.
"All my life, people know that I've fought for Ipswich, that I've fought for fair and I'm going to continue to do that," he said after being released from custody.
By the time the matter reached the Brisbane District Court, it had been two years since Pisasale had been in the public eye.
He had been on bail, quietly living in his family home in the Ipswich suburb of Brassall.
His reclusive lifestyle is a world apart from the reputation he once enjoyed, as one of Australia's most high-profile city mayors.
Pisasale was sentenced to two years' in prison, suspended after he served 12 months behind bars, after a Brisbane jury found him guilty of the extortion plot.
He is understood to have become a big reader in jail, devouring dozens of books.
The Operation Windage probe would lead to sweeping integrity reforms in local government, most notably a ban on developer donations that extended to all level of politics.
Originally published as House of cards tumbled: What burst open council scandal