A lawyer for former Warrnambool City councillor Jennifer Lowe and her husband Robert yesterday called a criminal case against his clients “a witch hunt” instigated by “liars”.
Defence counsel Damian Sheales made the comments in his opening statement as the four-week contested court hearing began in Warrnambool Magistrates Court, bringing the saga into its final stage.
Mr and Mrs Lowe face numerous charges relating to alleged theft and misappropriation of funds during their time working at Warrnambool Worn Gundidj Aboriginal Co-operative.
The exact number of charges was unavailable yesterday, with 350 removed from Mrs Lowe’s charge sheet and 282 from Mr Lowe’s, although they are believed to be duplicate charges removed as a matter of formality.
After initial legal argument, prosecutor Daniel Porceddu outlined in his opening statement that the alleged offending fell into three distinct categories: “offences committed by Jennifer Lowe for her own benefit, offences committee by Jennifer Lowe for the benefit of others and fraudulent use of a fuel credit card by Jennifer and Robert Lowe”.
Mr Porceddu said, more specifically, that the charges related to six alleged actions: Mrs Lowe using petty cash to buy items without authorisation, processing payments to herself without authorisation, giving a petrol card to Mr Lowe without authorisation, unauthorised use of a mobile phone, organising payments to benefit her husband and organising payments to a relative.
Mr Sheales told magistrate Timothy Walsh the “police have been unwitting dupes” in the matter, claiming Mr and Mrs Lowe’s colleagues at Worn Gunditj Co-op, Shannon Collyer and his late father John, were behind turning police on to the Lowes.
“Shannon and John Collyer are untruthful, they’re liars … and were (acting) so because of a falling out,” Mr Sheales told the court. “Jennifer Lowe was going to the police about misconduct by John Collyer and as a result of that a witch hunt was conducted with dishonest intent (with help from) a compliant constabulary that didn’t do any independent vetting or checking.”
Mr Sheales said he would prove that the Collyers had doctored co-op documents to hide their own misconduct, and raised questions about the prosecution’s accusations regarding the petrol fuel card, which the Lowes allegedly used without authorisation.
Magistrate Timothy Walsh conceded “the whole petrol thing seems to be a complete and utter shambles”, noting in particular allegations that 90 litres of fuel was put into a vehicle that couldn’t hold 90 litres of fuel.
The contested hearing is expected to run for four weeks, with 31 witnesses expected to be called.
Shannon Collyer is listed among the witnesses to front the court today.
John Collyer died in 2012 part-way through a cross-examination in the case.