Bill McNee???, the reclusive Melbourne millionaire developer at the centre of a political storm over Pauline Hanson’s aircraft use, failed to tell a potential buyer the true value of a multimillion-dollar rival bid and the fact it had been withdrawn.
In a civil proceeding in the Victorian Supreme Court Mr McNee and two real estate agents were the subject of scathing comments on their negotiating tactics and commissions of fact used to induce the buyer into a contract that resulted in a successful claim for misleading and deceptive conduct and damages of almost $3 million.
In 2014 Justice John Digby made a finding against Mr McNee and two real estate agents over the $5.93 million purchase of a commercial property at 255 Chapel Street, Prahran.
The court heard that Mr McNee and colleagues failed to tell purchaser Thi Huong Nguyen??? that an offer by another bidder of $5.92 million was in fact $5.57 million and it had lapsed the day before.
Justice Digby found Mr McNee and others had made or implied a number of misleading and deceptive statements, adding that the developer had made alleged statements “with no honest belief in the truth of those statements”.
A subsequent valuation found Mr Nguyen had paid $2.1 million above the market price. Justice Digby made a finding of fraud against Mr McNee and others. He assessed damages at $2.8 million. Justice Digby ordered Mr McNee and another pay 85 per cent of the damages. An appeal against the finding was dismissed last year.
The low-profile Mr McNee came out of nowhere in the early 2000s to turn himself into Melbourne’s $100 million man courtesy the boom in off-the-plan units but he has been rudely thrust into the national spotlight thanks to a snowballing story surrounding a cute Jabiru 230-D two-seater aircraft Hanson used to reboot her political career in the run-up to the 2016 federal election.
Labor has referred Ms Hanson’s One Nation party to the n Electoral Commission over allegations the purchase of the aircraft breached political donation laws.
The first indication Ms Hanson and Mr McNee were close came as Ms Hanson delivered her first speech to the Senate last September.
Mr McNee was sitting in the public gallery with his partner, and Ms Hanson’s latest svengali and personal pilot James Ashby, when she made a cryptic reference to the Jabiru 230-D.
“A couple of strangers came along at the right time, helped me spread my wings and gave me the support and assistance I needed that now sees me standing on this floor today,” Ms Hanson said.
“These people are no longer strangers but dear friends, welcome at home any time for another lamb roast. Thank you, Bill and Renata.”
Mr McNee refused to talk about his relationship with Mr Ashby or the money allegedly contributed to buy Ms Hanson’s campaign plane, when contacted by Fairfax Media. Mr Ashby failed to return calls.
Mr McNee has donated generously to political parties: Since 2014, he has given about $150,000 to the Liberals, $80,000 to the ALP and $70,000 to Hanson’s One Nation.
“We will never, ever make a political donation again. In hindsight it’s something we probably shouldn’t have done,” he told Fairfax Media.
“We are constantly approached by people for donations. We have stopped making political donations. Everything that I’ve done has been publicly disclosed,” he told Fairfax Media.
The son of British migrants, Mr McNee was born in the Melbourne bayside suburb of Frankston in 1972 and grew up in the hardscrabble housing commission estate The Pines.
After a building apprenticeship, he started renovating suburban homes before moving into property development and speculation, registering a small South Yarra-based company A.K. Smith Pty Ltd. in 1998.
Six years later he hit Melbourne’s CBD.
His first project was a renovation job in the old Kings Street night club strip. He moved on to the RACV building, South Yarra, Richmond, Fishermans Bend. His current big project is a 38-story apartment block on the former site of The Age newspaper in Spencer Street. Mr McNee’s property speculation and development outfit VicLand Property Group is run by a handful of workers from a rented South Yarra office.
As his wealth was turbo-charged thanks to the apartment boom, Mr McNee astutely appeared in real estate stories but never allowed photographs.
(Until the Senate public gallery photograph, the only publicly available shot of Mr McNee accompanied his website testimony to Finnish lifestyle coach Tomi Kokko under whom he trained in Melbourne: “I reached my target weight, I feel happier, my blood pressure is back to normal and I now make better business decisions for the company – Bill McNee – CEO of Vicland Property Group.”)
One story captured the man’s mercurial talent or luck: A property deal to buy 62 Hopetoun??? Road, Toorak, saw Mr McNee flip the 4000 square metre block of land he purchased from Toll Holdings executive Mark Rowsthorn in 2006 for $11 million to three Chinese buyers two years later for more than $20 million.
Peter Janson???, Melbourne’s man about town and nationally famous party host, recalls Mr McNee moving next door circa 2004 when he arrived in the CBD and meeting him when a burst water pipe flooded his cellar.
“Couldn’t have been nicer,” Mr Janson said. “We became quite good friends. I showed him how to deal with the Melbourne Council and hosted a party for his building mates and a planning minister. He liked taking photos of himself with friends.”
Mr Janson also says he helped Mr McNee obtain his first Rolls-Royce.
“It was a Silver Spirit but he was short of cash so I held it for him until he was in a better position. I must say, the impression that lingers was how hard the man worked.”