INSIDE LOFT TRIAL: Day one of ex-mayor’s historic court case
JUST days into his time as mayor, Chris Loft allegedly began the process of getting his friend a council job worth more than $100,000 a year.
The prosecution will allege this set the former Fraser Coast Regional Council mayor on a path of underhanding where he made deliberate attempts to tailor the position and manipulate the hiring process to benefit his campaign manager, Brian Downie.
In a courtroom packed with supporters, Mr Loft pleaded not guilty yesterday to one count of misconduct in public office between April 3, 2016 and February 28, 2017.
Of the 57 potential jurors, 14 were empanelled with two reserve jurors.
In his opening address, Crown Prosecutor Sam Bain took the jury through a series of emails between Mr Loft and various people alleging his wrongdoing.
Hervey Bay District Court heard that after the election in 2016, Mr Downie was paid by Mr Loft for "personal administration'' up until February, 2017.
It was alleged Mr Downie would meet with Mr Loft and sometimes Mr Loft's son Jason for weekly meetings at his office at The Globe in Maryborough.
When Mr Loft began as mayor he received secretarial support four days a week, just like his predecessor.
He told former council chief executive officer Lisa Desmond in July that he required more assistance as he was "drowning in emails'', so she arranged for another staff member to cover the extra day.
An email chain between Mr Loft and Mr Downie on April 7, 2016 detailed the perceived clout that position titles carried.
"He (Mr Downie) suggested 'mayoral executive officer', and 'I'll be your right hand man'," Mr Bain read from the emails.
"Mr Loft replied, 'sounds good to me', he went on 'even chief of staff I'm told is still possible', 'we can create whatever titles we want'.
"At this time the crown alleges he would not have known such a position was even necessary as it is just a matter of days after he has been elected as mayor," Mr Bain said.
The emails were said to have been sent after Mr Loft won the election but before he was sworn in on April 18.
In August 2016, Mr Downie allegedly emailed Mr Loft about the "mayoral secretary job description draft one''.
This had a position description attached and selection criteria.
It will be alleged the mayor presented an almost word-for-word position description and selection criteria to the then CEO when developing a "chief of staff'' position to work with the mayor.
"The crown allegation is this was drafted by Mr Downie to suit his (Mr Downie's) experience and Mr Loft would have been aware of it," Mr Bain said.
Mr Bain said the title had changed and the renumeration had come down from $180,000 to $120,000 but otherwise was "substantially the same" as Mr Downie's email.
When Ms Desmond's staff researched similar positions at other councils, she amended the proposed selection criteria and salary to align with that and emailed Mr Loft about the changes on August 20.
The salary package dropped down to about $106,400 per annum.
Later, after the position was advertised, Mr Downie sent Mr Loft an email asking him to "put his foot down'' and amend the job advertisement as Ms Desmond had "added things to the description''.
It is the role of the CEO to appoint local government employees.
The crown alleges that when Mr Downie was not short-listed for the job, Mr Loft asked for the short-listed applications. He gave them to Mr Downie to take notes on why they did not fit the selection criteria.
Mr Loft allegedly used this information in an email to Ms Desmond about how "fundamentally flawed" the process was due to "noncompliance" with selection criteria.
While Ms Desmond was on leave, Mr Loft refused to meet with the selected candidate, Anne Nioa, who he allegedly claimed was "Lisa's best friend and he could not trust her".
The job was then readvertised with minor changes and a different title of "policy adviser''.
Mr Loft emailed Ms Desmond saying he wanted to be part of the hiring. He said the position was a "unique role'' and therefore "cannot follow normal selection process''.
After three applicants were short-listed - none of them Mr Downie - Mr Loft emailed Ms Desmond asking her to postpone her decision until a special council meeting had taken place.
At that council meeting a resolution was moved to remove Ms Desmond as CEO.
Mr Bain told the court that just because Mr Downie did not get the job, it did not mean there had not been wrongdoing in the process.
The trial will continue with the cross-examination of Ms Desmond.
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