Customs officers charged
Eight people have been charged with offences after a two-year investigation into corruption.PT0M0S 620 349
- Customs staff linked to airport drug ring
- Inquiry needed into border watchdog
- Read the AFP press release on the customs officer arrest
- Read the AFP press release on the AQIS officer arrest
The Australian Federal Police say eight people have been arrested after a two-year investigation into suspected airport drug trading, including a customs officer and a quarantine inspector.
The details of the investigation and arrests could only be released today after a suppression order from a Victorian court was lifted, Home Affairs Minister Jason Clare said.
Three people were arrested in raids across Sydney and Adelaide on Monday, including customs officer Paul Lamella, a 28-year-old man from Burwood, Sydney. He has been accused of facilitating two importations of about 10 kilograms of pseudoephedrine in June 2009 and May 2010 through Sydney Airport.
A 22-year-old North Sydney woman and a 27-year-old woman from Abbotsford, Sydney, were arrested during the same raids for their role as alleged drug couriers. One of the women was arrested in Sydney and one in Adelaide, and both have been charged with drug importation offences.
On Wednesday, a 35-year-old woman from Caringbah, Sydney, who is an Australian Quarantine and Inspection Service official, was arrested and charged with corruption offences.
Australian Federal Police Commissioner Tony Negus said four other people had been arrested earlier this year in the investigation, including another customs officer. Mr Negus said they had been charged with a range of corruption and drug offences.
A new board will be set up to root out corruption in the Australian customs service following the arrests of those alleged to be members of the syndicate exploiting major gaps in airport and customs security at Sydney Airport.
Justice James Wood, who oversaw a royal commission that exposed widespread corruption within the NSW Police Force, will sit on the new Customs Reform Board that was announced on Thursday morning following revelations of one of Australia’s most serious corruption scandals centring on the airport.
A six-month Fairfax Media investigation - conducted with the ABC’s 7.30 program - has revealed that at least 15 officials in Sydney Airport border security posts are suspected of involvement in serious misconduct or corruption, ranging from criminal association and leaking information to drug trafficking, drug manufacturing, money laundering and bribery. The number may be as high as 20.
Mr Clare said on Thursday three ‘‘distinguished Australians’’ had been appointed to the new Customs Reform Board, which would report directly to him.
They are Justice Wood, former NSW Police Commissioner Ken Moroney, and David Mortimer, the former CEO of TNT Limited, former deputy chairman of Ansett and former chairman of Australia Post and Leighton Holdings.
‘‘In the case of Justice Wood, you’ve got Australia’s best corruption hunter, the man who was the architect of corruption reforms here in NSW, the best of the best,’’ Mr Clare said.
‘‘The job of the board will be to provide me with advice, and recommendation on further reform that is required.’’
He said the overwhelming majority of customs officers were honest and hard-working, and would be disgusted by Thursday’s revelations.
‘‘My message to them is this: you can expect more stings, you can expect more arrests and you can expect more reform. And if you’re a corrupt officer, you can expect to get caught,’’ Mr Clare said.
‘‘If you’re corrupt, we will hunt you down and lock you up. That is what this operation is all about.’’
Mr Clare said major reforms had been introduced to the Australian Customs and Border Protection Service this year as a result of the investigation, including covert operations to test the integrity of customs officers, and drug and alcohol testing.
Mr Negus said it would be alleged that couriers were sent overseas to collect drugs before returning through customs with the help of people in "trusted positions".
"Certainly what has been alleged before the courts so far is that the customs officers involved in this would meet drug couriers off the plane," he said.
"They would then walk them through the primary line of customs and then out into the waiting hall, so they would facilitate their entry through the normal checks and the normal law enforcement processes that everyone goes through when they enter this country.
"It will be alleged that they [customs officers] certainly played a role in organising the couriers themselves to go overseas, and to actually facilitate their collection of the narcotics overseas, and then again played a key role in bringing them back through the airport without any detection or any scrutiny from the normal process."
In the latest incident of drug smuggling, the couriers are alleged to have been sent to Thailand to collect precursors before returning to Australia, he said.
Mr Clare said he could not rule out similar syndicates operating at other Australian airports and ports.
"We just cannot be naive. You’ve got to expect that where law enforcement officers, with all of the powers that they have, are acting to defend Australia’s interest, that organised criminals will target them, that people will be tempted and that some people may end up working for the criminals," he said.
Customs and Border Protection Service acting chief Michael Pezzullo said he was disappointed but not surprised by the corruption revelations.
"I’m not so naive as to think that criminal elements will not attempt to penetrate this service, its systems and its staff," he said.
Louise Persse, the assistant national secretary of the Community and Public Sector Union, which represents customs officers, said the alleged actions of a handful of officers threatened to bring the hard work of 5000 customs staff into disrepute.
"We will of course co-operate with Minister Jason Clare's review into the culture and management practices of customs and we will ensure that the voices of our members, many of whom are on the frontline, are heard and taken into account," she said.