Australia

'Mr Teflon': Sydney's showiest politician comes unstuck

Salim Mehajer announces his ambition to become Australia's prime minister during a "presidential style" one-to-one interview Image copyright 9 News
Image caption Salim Mehajer announces his ambition to become Australia's prime minister during a "presidential style" one-to-one interview

He's a millionaire deputy mayor from Sydney whose outlandish antics have become a media mainstay. But as Trevor Marshallsea reports, a mounting list of allegations could end his career.

It's a story that has it all - power, intrigue, ostentatious wealth, allegations of corruption, and a bizarre plan to run a country.

And that's not to mention Ferraris, a fighter-jet flyover at a lavish wedding, and an American rapper with an entourage of barely clad women.

For six months Sydney has been in thrall to the rise of politician Salim Mehajer, the son of a property magnate who entered the family business and became a developer in his own right.

But Mr Mehajer, the deputy mayor of the Auburn City Council in Sydney's west, was last week suspended from office for four months for failing to disclose financial interests.

Next week, the state government is expected to sack the whole council over development approvals linked to Mr Mehajer's property interests.

Auburn's 10 councillors voted last week to contest their suspension, but it was not clear if they had met a Friday deadline to explain why they should retain their positions. Mr Mehajer has vowed to appeal against the suspension "for the sake of [his] constituents".

The political career of the larger-than-life figure dubbed "Mr Teflon" appears to have come unstuck.

'Australia's best wedding'

Image copyright 9 News
Image caption Mr Mehajer dubbed his wedding to beautician wife Aysha "Australia's best"

Few outside multi-cultural Auburn had heard of this son of Lebanese migrants before last year. But that all changed with a loud bang - and the roar of that jet engine - when the young millionaire married in August.

In what Mr Mehajer himself called the "best wedding in Australia", he married a former beautician from Wollongong, south of Sydney. She had changed her name in 2014 from April Learmonth to Aysha Mehajer, and also converted to Islam.

As glitzy weddings go, this one took the cake (which was seven decks high and almost as tall as the groom). Costing almost A$250,000 by some estimates, the event drew more than 500 guests.

Well-known Australian singer Missy Higgins provided entertainment. The groom and entourage arrived in four helicopters. A banner-towing plane buzzed by, but was outshone by the flyover of the chartered fighter jet.

The suburban street containing Mehajer's new family home was effectively closed off, with neighbours told in an "official notice" to remove their cars or they would be towed.

The notice was not issued by police, who later fined Mr Mehajer for illegally blocking the street. Traffic chaos ensued as the wedding motorcade, with a large motorcycle escort, made its way through the area.

Image copyright 9 News
Image caption Mehajer and his entourage arrived at his wedding in four helicopters

A series of unusual incidents that followed the wedding only strengthened public interest in the young politician.

First there was the discovery of his pre-wedding "movie", with its high-gloss production values, ostentatious displays of wealth and gangster-style handgun interlude.

Then came revelations rapper Bow Wow had rented Mr Mehajer's house to shoot a video clip where a gaggle of curvy females gyrated on a marble staircase.

The top spot

But his most audacious move was surely his announcement on national television that he intended to become Australia's prime minister.

Despite it being a one-on-one interview, Mr Mehajer insisted on standing behind a lectern for maximum impact. With his wife dutifully positioned 2m behind him, he detailed his plan of ascent.

"I would like to start off by being in state, federal, and I would like to make my way up to the very top spot. That would be my dream come true," said Australia's best-known deputy mayor.

The interview was universally panned, widely mocked and left one well-known breakfast presenter speechless with laughter. Yet the brash young politician, meticulously groomed and with an ever-present blinding white smile, seems always to plough on, impervious to both contentious headlines or open mockery.

Yet away from media land, Mr Mehajer's bad boy reputation has got very real indeed. He has garnered more and more publicity, most of it bad, through his brushes with authority.

With Mr Mehajer already suspended from office, a probe is underway into claims the Auburn council voted to sell a council-owned car park to a Mehajer family company for some A$5m ($3.6m; £2.5m) less than its open market value.

Fairfax Media reported the company planned to build apartments on the property. The state's local government authority had given the council until Friday to show why it should not be suspended while a public inquiry is held.

Multiple legal disputes

Image copyright 9 News
Image caption Mr Mehajer has been dogged by multiple court cases and allegations of misconduct

More serious is a court case, resuming next month, examining how Mr Mehajer came to be on the council at all. Federal police are investigating him and seven associates, including his sister Fatima, for fraud involving the alleged rigging of Auburn's 2012 local elections.

The Australian newspaper said this related to 76 electoral enrolment forms allegedly lodged by Mr Mehajer and his sister. Both Mr Mehajer and his sister deny the impending charges, which carry a potential jail term of up to 10 years.

Mr Mehajer - who delayed his wedding until his developer father Mohamad finished jail time for conspiring to defraud a bank - knows his way to the courts.

In November, Fairfax reported he was involved in seven legal actions. These included a charge that he intimidated gym owner Bruce Herat, who also happens to be the father of Joel Herat, a survivor of Sydney's Lindt Cafe siege in 2014. Mr Mehajer allegedly threatened to "kidnap" Mr Herat's children.

Mr Mehajer called the allegations "false", "misleading", "sheer evil" and "un-Australian". But as the list of accusations grew, criticism of his position on Auburn Council grew ever more intense.

There was a legal dispute over cleaning bills, and another over taxes. He settled out of court after being sued by the company which supplied the marble for his staircase.

In October, he settled a case brought by two pedestrians injured when he crashed his Ferrari into them in 2012. Just last week he faced allegations he dumped licence demerit points onto an unwitting student. He denies the claims.

It's been a wild six months for Mr Mehajer, but suspended from his deputy mayor position, the prime ministerial aspirant is currently in the public eye for all the wrong reasons.

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