AFP's tax fraud raids: how top cops manage and massage the newsJack Waterford
Published: May 20 2017 - 12:15AM
It was a good Thursday in the Australian Federal Police. A morning array of raids netted a number of folk accused of systematic fraud on the Tax Office. An incidental but very newsworthy casualty was a deputy tax commissioner, the person in the Tax Office who used to liaise closely with the AFP in the government's serious fraud taskforce. This man is the father of two of those arrested. AFP Deputy Commissioner Leanne Close suggested he had given his son information, which the son had put to bad use. This man, like a number of other tax staff, is now suspended from duty.
The AFP's media statement announced the police had "smashed" a $165 million tax fraud syndicate. One might think the AFP had detected the crime, rather than investigated a brief it had received. And that there was no point in trials, because it seemed the AFP had already found the offenders guilty and dispensed punishment.
Some loyal, mostly uncritical, journalists were given advance information of the raids, and accordingly got scoops. Those who did not received a fairly full briefing after the fact from the AFP about what would be alleged, who would be charged, what they were said to have done and, in particular, about how the fraud was said to have operated. Occasionally, the word "alleged" appeared, but we all know, nudge nudge, that this is for form's sake only. Look at the headline.
It was information of a sort that, had it not been convenient to the AFP's marketing of itself as a premier crime-fighting outfit, would have been regarded by judicial and prosecution authorities as sub judice, capable of poisoning the well of a successful defence by inviting potential jurors to conclude that those accused were guilty.
I am sceptical of some of the more restrictive interpretations of the sub judice law, by which the presentation of facts or comment about people facing criminal proceedings must be limited, after charges are laid, to what happens in court. I have great faith – a lot more than most judges – in the capacity of potential jurors to discriminate between police allegations at media conferences and actual evidence.
What I find annoying, however, is the double standard by which police hide behind the rule when it suits them, while sometimes blatantly breaching it with the promulgation of very prejudicial material. What's the discriminant? Nothing to do with rights to a fair trial or the interests of justice. It's whether it makes the police, or its bosses, look good.
There's nothing particularly unusual about the AFP celebrating a good get with a shower of prejudicial information. One could go all the way back to the then Commonwealth Police and the disastrous Greek social security fraud case of the late 1970s. Known as "Don's party" after chief investigator Don Thomas, it involved the conversion of vague suspicion in social security to firm belief without evidence that many people of ethnic origin, especially Greeks, were defrauding invalidity benefits with the connivance of tame doctors, over what was sometimes termed "Mediterranean back".
Simultaneous raids on more than 150 houses and five doctors' surgeries saw 180 people, mostly Greeks, arrested. An array of tame journalists were assembled to witness the raids and to record Thomas's claim of the "biggest breakthrough in the history of the police force".
He promised more raids and predicted more than 1000 further arrests, including extradition of invalid pensioners from Greece. Hundreds of others, mostly "of ethnic origin" – nudge nudge – had their benefits arbitrarily suspended, primarily because they were patients of doctors who faced charges. (What distinguished these doctors, it seems, was that they spoke Greek, and thus attracted a "suspicious" number of Greek patients.)
Tabloid newspapers, pandered with stories of welfare fraud by foreigners, had a field day denouncing the (already convicted by them) "cheats". The hero of the hour, apart from Thomas, was Pat Lanigan, secretary of the Department of Social Security, perhaps my favourite ever "colourful" public servant, and a person even further down on welfare fraud and "scroungers" than today's Brigadier Kathryn Campbell of the Department of Human Services.
There were a small number of convictions. But the Commonwealth settled with the last of the successful 175 defendants five years later, having paid out what would be, in today's terms, about $60 million. The cases, and the conspiracy allegation, had collapsed, primarily for police overreach, incompetence, impropriety and rush to judgment.
When it was time to take the hapless cops to the tumbrils, no one was baying for their blood more loudly than the shock jocks and tabloid media who had praised them so handsomely a few years before. As so often when police consort with reptiles of the media, it was a classic harlot-of-Kew situation.
As it was with other AFP debacles, likewise attended with generous leaks to favoured media, informative and highly prejudicial media conferences, and ultimate full-scale police rout. And by astonishing AFP failure, in arrears, to hold any of their own accountable for how officers had let the public, and the force, down. Think, for example, of the Haneef affair, where serious injustice was done to an Indian doctor too readily accused of being involved in terrorism. And who can forget the debacle of "the blackest day in Australian sport", as delivered by AFP cousins?
One can hypothesise a general rule that the more overblown, prejudicial and self-serving the initial AFP propaganda, and the more senior the officers present claiming personal credit, the more likely the affair will end, much later, in tears, damages and political embarrassment. But never demotions, apologies or accountability.
The great advantage of having a media conference alongside bags of confiscated drugs, alongside earnest cops proclaiming this to be the biggest haul ever, is the almost sure and certain knowledge that the seizure, whatever it was, will have no effect whatever on the supply of, or demand for, illegal drugs. Nor in the number of players, including police, who depend on the continuing existence of a big Australian drug industry – employing more people and earning them more dollars than, say, either the wheat or the wool industry.
Also benefiting from such publicity – and now in the business of doling out leaks, and paying reward and punishment games with journalists – are other not obviously effective law-enforcement agencies, such as the Australian Border Force. And ministers, sometimes up to the level of prime ministers, and other politicians who love to grandstand about crime, and for whom the sight of eager-to-please cops and intelligence officers is almost as intoxicating as the presence of Australian flags.
Experienced journalists quickly learn the value of ladling out endless flattery in return for privileged access. It is by no means a phenomenon confined to the AFP – the NSW and Victorian police adopt a similar approaches.
It would be odious to suggest that the apparently guileless but deeply cynical journalists have it all over the case-hardened but starved-for-love cops. The relationship is, after all, symbiotic. It suits them both, and both are players. What is less clear is whether it suits the public interest. As with News Ltd scoops about the Coalition government's intentions, one can readily see the mutual pleasure for the giver and the taker, but can hardly fail to notice how ultimately barren the marriage. The media has surrendered its critical faculties; police are deprived of the sort of critical scrutiny they actually need if they are to be effective, to be able to form real, as opposed to imaginary relationships with the community, or to constantly monitor and reassess its scrutiny and effectiveness.
It is noteworthy that the discovery of fundamentally rotten things in such police forces as in NSW, Queensland and Western Australia in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s did not come from any of the fabled police roundsmen (they were all boys) with remarkable closeness to their police sources. That so many of the cops were corrupt escaped their notice. Exposure came from journalists, often women like Wendy Bacon or Marian Wilkinson, who kept their distance, and did not trade favours or avert their critical faculties.
As it happens, Thursday saw the AFP in both an information-sharing and an information-restricting mode.
There on its media website, for example, was a warning to journalists that "as a matter of policy, the AFP will not comment on ongoing operations".
As the Tax Office case, shows this reticence is deeply selective. AFP media operations, which cost the taxpayer many millions of dollars, have never been there with a duty of answering any questions that might be properly asked about police activities. It exists only to "market" the AFP, and its most senior officers, as wonderful crime fighters. It has always played an absolutely dead bat to the provision of any information capable of portraying the AFP, or its most senior officers, in an unfavourable light. Even at local levels, such as the ACT. The public is not any sort of partner in police activities, being told only what it suits the police to volunteer. Particular efforts are made to prevent journalists having any access to middle or junior-level officers who actually do the hard work; the glory and grandstanding is to be confined to the higher ranks who manage.
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This week, yet another prisoner at the Alexander Maconochie Centre died of a drug overdose. It was, I understand, an overdose of the drug buprenorphine, which, like methadone, is a synthetic opioid made available to prisoners under the jail's drug-rehabilitation programs. No official has yet said this.
As ever when there is a death in custody at the jail, there was a complete media shutdown, with minister, department, prison authorities and police volunteering no information whatever to the public. No one has said it was a drug overdose, mentioned the drug involved, said it was prescribed by a prison doctor, and probably dispensed to the prisoner by nurses as an ordinary part of morning medical parade. Or that one of the problems of such treatment programs is that, as a doctor commented at the inquest into the last death, there is an almost complete overlap between what is a safe, a toxic and a fatal dose of any of the drugs in question.
If anyone wants to ask hard questions about the program, or about how the prison operates, they will quickly be accused of "politicising" a tragedy, of rushing to judgment or of jumping the gun before proper inquiries have been made. Indeed, judging by police or ministerial statements, the proper time to satisfy public or family curiosity is at an inquest, often more than a year afterwards. And even then, answers must depend on whether a coroner thought the question important or within his or her jurisdiction.
The inquest into the death of Steven Freeman, who choked on his vomit sometime after receiving his second dose of prison-prescribed methadone last year, proceeds apace, far too long from the death.
Early on, the coroner decided he would conduct only a very narrow inquiry, and ask no questions about serious head injuries inflicted on Freeman a year before his death. The inquest has active participation of counsel for the ACT government, with a brief to try to restrict the admission of evidence that might raise questions of actionable negligence.
I hope the coroner will report on the "communications breakdowns" by which the prison and police failed the dead man's family, the Indigenous community and the public, as well as the recommendations of the royal commission into Aboriginal deaths in custody, over procedures after a death, and the provision of information to interested parties. The public also deserves an explanation of the government's decision to apply an information blackout, given that one of the convenient reasons was that the coronial process requires it. It doesn't.
A coronial inquest must satisfy the need for the public, and interested parties, such as the family, to find out what happened. To date, no ordinary member of the public could establish from the accessible record, or even from attendance, what is happening. The ACT court system, which once led Australia in its record keeping, puts nothing on the internet and closely restricts public access to statements and exhibits. There are some suppression orders of uncertain breadth. Counsel and coroner, with access to materials inaccessible to members of the public, speak in shorthand, with elliptical references to documents the public cannot see. The ACT justice system is the most expensive in Australia, and the most backward and second-rate.
Freeman's family still do not know what happened, or why, or why they had to wait weeks for any explanations at all. Why, in the month after the death, standard procedures were ignored by police and the jail, and why they were treated with disdain and contempt.
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Also on Thursday, the open and transparent AFP replied to my questions about how ACT Policing saw itself taking part in an ACT anti-corruption and integrity commission.
An ACT Legislative Assembly committee, chaired by the minister for jails, Shane Rattenbury, is holding an inquiry into the form such a commission should take. There's a rumour about that ACT Policing will insist that it should not be – perhaps as an ultimately federal agency cannot be – subject to any sort of ACT ICAC. If so, the ACT would be the only Australian jurisdiction in which an integrity body did not have a remit over its own police force.
"The AFP (including ACT Policing) is preparing a submission to the ACT government on this matter and looks forward to contributing to the committee's deliberations," the AFP response read. "It would not be appropriate to pre-empt this submission.
"Corruption allegations relating to the AFP are already considered by the Australian Commission for Law Enforcement Integrity. The AFP understands the issues you raise will be examined by the committee in line with the inquiry's terms of reference: '(f) the relationship between any commission and existing accountability and transparency mechanisms and bodies in the ACT'."
The law-enforcement integrity commission is so secretive, so private and ultimately so unaccountable that no member of the public has more than the haziest of ideas about what it does or has done. Whatever it does has flushed out only rats-and-mice cases, and produced even fewer convictions than the fabled work of the national serious crime unit responsible for Thursday's high-profile raids. One must take it on trust that it does its job, and is effective and efficient.
From what I observe of its operations, I do not think that it is. But, if I am wrong, the AFP and other Commonwealth law-enforcement bodies must be the most honest and efficient in the world. Years of integrity commission effort, at a cost of tens of millions of dollars, has found nothing but rats and mice, even as it has allowed police commissioners and ministers to pretend there is no need for independent and transparent scrutiny.
If the AFP (or Border Force) were truly beyond corruption, that would be something to hold a media conference about.
Jack Waterford is a former Canberra Times editor. firstname.lastname@example.org
This story was found at: http://www.canberratimes.com.au/comment/afps-tax-fraud-raids-how-top-cops-manage-and-massage-the-news-20170518-gw8e5v.html