Only months later, Mr Johns gained kudos for himself by making a $33,000 donation to the Liberals’ coffers for the May federal election. The donation, which he signed, was made by his recently established company, Eco Water Group.
The company, which planned to turn brackish underground water into usable water for irrigation in Griffith, was funded by drug kingpin Marcello “Marchie” Casella, 59, who has been jailed over a major cannabis crop and pleaded guilty to knowing about another.
Casella, via his lawyer, denied that he had used “a company as a front to make a secret donation to the NSW Liberal Party” and that he would sue if there was any suggestion he had “engaged in subterfuge to circumvent the provisions of the Commonwealth Electoral Act”.
Mr Johns admitted to the Herald that Casella was funding the water business and he was being paid $8000 a month. Mr Johns would not say how much he had put into the business or why a start-up venture was donating such a large sum to the party.
Asked how much Casella had invested, Mr Johns said he had no idea as “Troy did all the books”.
Troy Stewart, a joiner from the shire, was the co-owner of Eco Water. Mr Johns said he was introduced to Casella by Mr Stewart, who has “worked with Marcello for quite a few years”.
Corporate records show that Eco Water was just one of three business ventures in which Mr Johns was involved with Mr Stewart. Another was Agricann, a proposed billion-dollar venture to manufacture and market cannabis for medicinal use. Mr Johns was adamant that Casella was to have no involvement in the marijuana business because of his drug convictions.
Asked if he had any reputational concerns about being in a business bankrolled by a convicted criminal, Mr Johns said Casella “always told me he had no involvement whatsoever” in the drug crop and that he’d only pleaded guilty to lesser charges because of legal advice.
Mr Johns is also involved in a “sewer rehabilitation” business with a Chinese property development company, which developed 23 luxury townhouses in the Sutherland area.
In 2018, when nominating for preselection for Hughes, Mr Johns listed his occupation as managing director of JHC Infrastructure. What he didn’t declare was that his fellow directors were Minhgai “Hansen” Zhang and his daughter, Winkie. Their property development company, Hansen Investment Corp, is the majority shareholder in Mr Johns’ company.
In his most-recent pecuniary interest declaration to council, he ticked “no” when asked whether he was a “close associate of a property developer”.
Mr Johns agreed Hansen was a development company. When asked why he did not think that was something he should have disclosed, he replied: “If I made a mistake it would be somewhere between genuine and lazy.”
Selling Riverina to the world
On January 10, 2018, Mr Johns was in a sweat as the temperature hit 32 degrees in Casella’s home town of Griffith, in south-western NSW.