How to do business his way (Bechara)
June 13, 2007
FOR someone who has attracted so much controversy, Antoine Bechara cuts a respectable figure. The 45-year-old property developer dresses in beige slacks and a button-down checked shirt. His greying hair is cropped close, and he has a nervous habit of folding and unfolding his glasses. In conversation with the Herald – at a meeting to which he agreed on the condition it was not reproduced in print – he was earnest and agreeable.
The Lebanon-raised property developer, who first made his name during a high-rise boom in Burwood in the 1990s, has made millions of dollars turning suburbs into apartment buildings. And the cigar-smoking entrepreneur has enjoyed his success. He drives a late model silver Mercedes-Benz, lives in a multi-million-dollar waterfront property in Abbotsford and is well known within the Labor Party.
But to those who know him only as the head of Omaya Holding, the vehicle for his redevelopment of Strathfield’s lucrative Golden Triangle, Bechara is a formidable man.Advertisement
Numerous Triangle residents contacted by the Herald report a growing unease about their neighbourhood. Some are not prepared to answer their door or to mention his name.
Judy Chin, 55, has had several disputes with Bechara over the past few years as he has tried to convince her to sell her property and make way for what could be his seventh apartment complex in the Triangle.
She says their relations took a turn for the worse when he refused her offer to sell for $1 million. After he added a neighbouring property to his 35-odd holdings in the area, he was allegedly in no mood for complaints. “One day I complained about the garbage [from his construction works] and he said, ‘F— off’,” Chin claims. “He said he will keep me here for 20 years. But I’m 55 now and by then I will be 75 and I will be too old to move.”
The Bonaccorso family, the Triangle’s biggest agitators, have been embroiled in court action for three years with the City of Canada Bay Council and Bechara’s various companies.
On May 5, a stolen Honda CRV crashed into Paul Bonaccorso’s work premises in Auburn and was torched. “They crashed through the wire chain and over the wall. They left it in the car park and set it on fire. Then they rolled it down towards the brick wall,” Bonaccorso says. “The whole building could have gone so easily.”
In an unrelated incident on Tuesday, Chin’s car was firebombed about 11pm. The driver’s side window was smashed. Petrol was poured in over the front seat and dashboard and ignited. Greg Kelly, a forensic investigator engaged by the Herald, says it was one of the clearest cases of arson he had seen in 24 years of forensic fire and explosion scene examination experience.
While the Herald makes no suggestion that there is any connection at all with Bechara, these incidents have only added to residents’ sense of insecurity at living in what has turned from a quiet residential area into a bleak commercial zone.
In 1997 Jan O’Neill, the wife of a Burwood councillor who had opposed Bechara’s controversial developments, sought an interim Apprehended Violence Order against him. Bechara consented without admission and tried unsuccessfully to obtain an AVO against O’Neill.
O’Neill’s police statement said “Antoine and his friends” had called her by telephone at night and driven up and down the street outside her home, staring at her house.
According to Bechara, O’Neill said in the Burwood Council foyer that he would probably end up in jail. Her statement to police accuses him of verbally abusing her.
O’Neill told the police Bechara then shouted at onlookers: “You saw or heard nothing.”
Even a Sydney barrister says he has come in for special treatment. After addressing Canada Bay council for the Bonaccorsos in 2002, Peter Tomasetti stood outside briefing the family. “We stood in the car park at nine or 10 at night, and I was explaining the consequences of what had occurred [at the meeting],” he told the Herald.
“Then a large black Mercedes came up … and Mr Bechara was in the car. He drove very slowly and stopped so the bumper bar was at my legs, and then he drove forward, did a U-turn and did it again. I was quite intimidated, it had never happened to me before … It was like, ‘Get off my patch’.”
ABOUT three weeks ago, Alex Zissis came to blows with Bechara after Zissis discovered workers from one of Bechara’s developments had poured a concrete slab almost three metres inside his property line. “He started swearing at me. He called me a dog.”
But Zissis blames the local council: “I think the council has made a big mistake here. My question is why is no [other developer] coming around here?”
The Herald understands the laneway behind Zissis’s property formed part of several council real estate sales to Bechara that have not been publicly advertised.
“Why didn’t the council write to me, and say would I consider to buy this land?” Zissis asks.
It is a question many are asking.
Since 2000, first Concord Council, then, after the 2000 amalgamation with Drummoyne Council, the City of Canada Bay Council, have sold at least 11 public properties to Bechara, or his associated companies, all without any form of public tender. Some sales have come in well below market value. The council sales have included at least one road, several heritage-listed properties and both of the parks in the Triangle. “I don’t know why they were not put on public tender,” Councillor Michael Megna says. “When I was on Drummoyne Council [a sale without public tender] was certainly not done.”
The council has come in for some scrutiny over its dealings. It has been found to have sold community land illegally, its officers have been questioned in the Supreme Court over contracts of sale and there have been multiple requests from sections of the community – and from within the council – that it be investigated, sacked and replaced with an administrator.
However, says an ALP councillor, Neil Kenzler, “the ICAC has been through this stuff about five times and has never found anything to substantiate the allegations being made by these people”.
And a former mayor of Concord, Peter Woods, told the Herald from Bangkok: “The allegations and nonsense that has been going on about his development of the Triangle [is] absolute piffle.”
The value of the council’s transactions with Bechara excedes $5 million – but some properties were sold without proper valuations and many were sold at well below market value.
The council sold three heritage-listed properties to Bechara with a clause that appears to commit it to future decisions in his favour: “The council agrees, as consent authority, to accept and approve an application for the demolition of all or any of the properties comprised in this contract subject to conditions it may reasonably impose,” reads clause 17 of the contract.
In one agreement, the council exchanged and settled on the $932,520 sale of Chapman Reserve, in a single day, to Bechara’s Omaya Holding Pty Ltd. But it was Bechara’s joint venture company, Arinson Pty Ltd, that appeared on the original contract.
In a Supreme Court hearing in 2004, the council’s then general manager, Lea Rosser, revealed a rival offer had arrived, before the sale, from the other half of the joint venture. But the mayor, Angelo Tsirekas, had ordered her to instead complete the sale with Omaya Holding, Rosser told the court. Tsirekas has not responded to inquiries from the Herald.
In March this year, the Land and Environment Court ruled the council did not have the power to sell the park and overturned the transaction. In a similar sale, which has not been the focus of the court’s attention, the council also sold Bechara Lord Place, the Triangle’s only other public park.
Meanwhile, the Herald has been unable to establish whether Bechara or his companies paid interest on long delays in settling contracts with the council, nor whether the council allowed him a deferred payment plan on some properties.
Justice Peter Biscoe, in making his ruling on the illegal sale of Chapman Reserve, remarked on the delay in registering this sale: “No explanation for the delay in stamping or registration has been provided. It may be inferred that it was initially in order to obtain financial advantage and ultimately to raise a barrier of indefeasibility … “
There are other council irregularities that have caused the few remaining Triangle residents some concern. While some say they never receive notification of Bechara’s proposed developments, Monte Wang and his wife, Sze Lee, are greatly distressed about one of his proposals in particular.
“They will widen the road and cut my land here by four metres,” Wang says, referring to an application lodged in February last year.
He says the widening of Cooper Street – which he says is designed to allow Bechara’s trucks to travel more freely within the Triangle – would take about 160 square metres, or 40 per cent, of his property.
The council has declined to explain to the Herald how the application will affect Wang’s property.
Wang, who refuses to come to his door to strangers, says he has tried on two occasions to get further information from the council, to no avail. And so far, he says, the council has not discussed any form of compensation for his loss of property. “They have not told me they will pay me,” he says. “But Antoine Bechara, he said to me, no one else will buy it because of what council has done … and only if you sell it cheaply I will buy it. The only one who can buy it will be me.”
SOME of these incidents have come to light during a four-year court battle between the council and the Bonaccorso family, which owns an ageing apartment building on Chapman Street.
In 2003 the Bonaccorsos appealed against the council’s development approval of a 158-unit complex on the street. It required the demolition of three 19th-century cottages on the council’s own heritage register and it was to be built over a public park – all properties sold by the council.
Bechara’s development was also to take in 1365 square metres of roadway. The road’s closure has already been gazetted by the council and the development application approved – but the road has not yet been sold by
the council. At the $1200 a square metre the council has charged Bechara in the past, this is an area worth $1,638,000. In the court proceedings the council admitted it had failed to properly inform the community about the development and conceded its approval was invalid.
Despite this, and Justice Biscoe’s finding that it had no right to sell Chapman Reserve because it was community, not operational, land, the council resolved in a closed session to embark on a lengthy and expensive appeal. It also resolved, in closed session, to rezone the park – which, technically, it no longer owns – to operational land, enabling it to be sold, again.
The case is still under way. Later this month the court will hear submissions in a separate but related case, on Bechara’s attempt to demolish the Chapman Street heritage properties.
The Bonaccorsos obtained an injunction last year to stop the demolition. Despite this order, and the heritage issues that were yet to be heard by the court, the council pushed through another demolition application just two weeks before the hearing. It did so against its expert advice.
The backdrop to this saga is a series of council planning decisions that have provided Bechara’s Golden Triangle holdings with the maximum building height and density possible – other properties within the development area are slated for far lower densities. He has even been permitted to transfer floor-space ratio between his holdings.
His properties on Leicester Avenue have escaped conservation listings that have stymied development along most of the street, despite expert court testimony that they were of equal heritage value.
Tomasetti said these recent council decisions defied logic and flew “in the face of legal challenges which are substantially successful to find grounds”.
“I think in the fullness of time it may be shown their conduct justifies the appointment of administrators to the council.”
Although hundreds of pages of documents have been obtained by the Herald, secrecy surrounds the Golden Triangle and Bechara’s hold over the area. The sole dissident councillor, Michael Cantali, a one-time Liberal but now independent, has had to resort to Freedom of Information requests to access documents normally available to elected councillors.
He said the property sales should have all gone to public tender, and that the entire Triangle is “swept under the carpet” in council proceedings because the votes usually end up as eight to one. “What usually happens at the council meeting at Canada Bay Council is we have a very powerful group of councillors. It is a Labor council and they vote as a block,” he said. “Raising any issues they don’t like, it does not even get a seconder. I asked questions in the council and the mayor ruled the questions out of order.”
He believes the appointment of an administrator to the council may be in the “best interests of the community and the council”.
BECHARA is known to have close ties to the Labor Party. He, and his associated companies, have given thousands of dollars in campaign donations to the member for Drummoyne, Angela D’Amore, the sister-in-law of the Ports and Waterways Minister, Joe Tripodi.
Multiple requests to the State Government to investigate the council have been quietly deferred for the past four years. In a letter to the Bonaccorsos’ legal team in January, the then local government minister, Kerry Hickey, said no investigation would be carried out while the matter was before the courts.
“I am advised that … the department considers it appropriate to await the outcome of the matters before the Land and Environment Court prior to determining what course of action, if any, should be taken in relation to examining this matter further,” he said.
Despite Kenzler’s claims, it is not known whether the Independent Commission Against Corruption has ever acted on several requests since about 2000 that the council be investigated.
Megna, a Liberal, readily admits having known Bechara “for years” but said “I don’t know if we’ve ever spoken business”.
“I am not one of the ruling bodies on the council. The Labor Party … pretty much run the council.”
Woods, a former president of the Local Government Association, told the Herald last week that he had been an adviser to Bechara.
“I’ve given him advice and I will continue to give him advice while he is being appallingly treated,” he said.
“He had approvals … [and] he was getting on with the job and people have come out and played all sorts of games.”
Woods said he had not been paid for his advice. “It was all subsequent to decisions that were made.”
About seven years ago, a Triangle resident, Helen Lyons-Riley says, she was ambushed at a Concord Council meeting on the evening the council was to first vote on Bechara’s proposals for Chapman Street. The meeting was adjourned, the 56-year-old woman claims, and she was effectively forced to negotiate with Bechara’s agent.
“We went back into the council and, bang, the DA gets passed.”
But the following day the agent came back with a price lower than the price she thought she had agreed to. “We obviously had a big problem. I said, ‘I’m not going ahead’.
“In the late afternoon I get a call from Peter Woods. He said, ‘I’ve just been on the phone to Antoine Bechara and he is really upset. He wants to come around and see you’,” Lyons-Riley said.
“[Then] there was a knock on the door … and it was Antoine.
“I was still on the phone to Peter Woods and my son was outside talking to Antoine.”
Woods denies her account. He told the Herald, from Bangkok, that he was actually contacted by her. “If she would like to repeat that publicly she had better bring her chequebook; that is absolute nonsense,” he said.
He said that all he did was “facilitate an opportunity for people to meet and discuss [the sale of the house]”.
EVEN his former Golden Triangle business partner, Nati Stoliar, himself a property developer with links to the ALP, says he cannot account for the planning decisions that have gone Bechara’s way.
“Antoine all the time said to me, ‘Leave it to me, I will be the one to negotiate with the council’,” Stoliar said. “Every single thing he did with council was like hush-hush.”
But in December 2003, after the pair netted more than $10 million on a 140-unit megalopolis called The Clarence, they fell out.
“He basically stabbed me in the back,” Stoliar said.
Stoliar pulled out. Their joint venture company, Arinson, went into liquidation and for the next two years it appeared Bechara’s vision for the Triangle was fading.
But Bechara has taken back the Golden Triangle. He has paid more than $8 million to retrieve properties held jointly between him and his former associate.
And while he has been paying out Stoliar, as well as other multi-million-dollar debts, Bechara has still been able to bankroll the purchase of other Triangle properties to the tune of about $20 million – often securing private sales at low prices.
Melanie Kallio sold her mother’s Chapman Street property to Bechara through a real estate agent. Despite several offers that reached as high as $950,000 – and even a formal offer from Omaya Holding of $750,000 months earlier – the cottage was sold to Bechara, before auction, for just $480,000.
Paul Bonaccorso said he had contacted the agent several times to register his interest in the property.
“I told him we were interested in buying it and to let us know when the auction was going to be. We turned up to the auction date and I rang him, and he said it has been put off for two weeks,” he said.
“I rang him to make sure it was still going ahead and he said it was sold before auction.”
Kallio claimed she was never told her property had a massive density allowed under a recent development control plan for the Triangle, and that Bonaccorso was a serious buyer.
“I was not aware that it would allow 10 storeys,” she said. “This agent told us that Paul Bonaccorso was not interested.”
The agent maintains his position that Bechara was the only competitive bidder, and that it didn’t make sense to go to auction.
Some of the city’s councillors contacted by the Herald seemed equally mystified by the Triangle and Bechara’s relationship with the council, and those recently elected to their positions stressed that many of the decisions were made before their time.
Councillor Tony Fasanella said the decision to appeal against the Land and Environment Court verdict, and to approve another demolition application for Chapman Street, was done on confidential legal advice.
Councillor Marion O’Connell said the Triangle had been earmarked by the State Government for high-density development. “We were satisfied that [the heritage properties] could be demolished and it would not interfere with the fabric of the whole area … it was out of keeping with what was proposed.”
The council’s acting general manager, Tim McNamara, declined to respond to a list of 29 questions supplied in writing from the Herald.
“The matters raised relate directly to current legal proceedings in a number of courts in NSW,” he said through a spokesperson.
“As a consequence it is not appropriate to respond given that these matters are presently before the courts. Council will consider these inquiries once the proceedings are at an end.”
Bechara also declined to respond to specific questions put to him in writing by the Herald. Through his lawyer, he “denies any wrongdoing or illegality of any description”.