Customs inquiries sniff out compromised officers
Customs and Border Protection authorities conducted 700 secret inquiries into staff in just three years, two-thirds of which led to adverse findings, raising serious questions about the integrity of the organisation charged with policing the country's borders.
The cases, unearthed by a Fairfax investigation, examined allegations that included the trafficking of weapons and drugs, large-scale fraud and the pilfering of sensitive Customs intelligence.
The allegations are contained in previously classified Internal Affairs records that underscore the enduring vulnerability of the service to infiltration by organised crime, after a recent police taskforce arrested 17 people, including four allegedly corrupt Customs officers.
The files, obtained after a freedom-of-information fight that lasted two years, show senior executives have long known that Customs officials have been linked to groups such as bikie gangs, African crime syndicates, the Italian Mafia and even suspected terrorists.
They also expose the institutional failures and under-resourcing that have gravely compromised Customs' ability to properly investigate itself over the past decade.
The new head of Customs, Mike Pezzullo, told Fairfax Media he was determined to overhaul the service's internal professional standards unit, to bring it up to ''the highest calibre'' and place it ''beyond reproach''.
''I am inclined to the view that some of these standards have not been necessarily met in the past,'' he admitted.
The logs reveal that 930 individual matters were referred to professional standards officers between 2007 and 2010, of which 527 were substantiated. Despite this, Customs could point to only five prosecutions.
Of the total, 166 were unproven, 206 were found to relate to other agencies, and 522 were dealt with as an internal disciplinary matter.
Smuggling allegations covered not just drugs and illicit tobacco but exotic animals and, in one case, children. The files show that crime groups attempted to bribe officers with amounts of up to $80,000.
At least 11 officers resigned between 2008-09 and 2010-11 before inquiries into their conduct could be completed, effectively suspending those investigations.
Since the dossier was compiled, Customs has embarked on a reform program and Home Affairs Minister Jason Clare and Mr Pezzullo have vowed to root out corruption. Customs is among several agencies now allowed to conduct covert integrity testing as well as drug and alcohol testing. As of February 14, it also demands the mandatory reporting of misconduct.
Mr Pezzullo is centralising Customs' internal affairs unit, and increasing its resources. It now boasts 10 dedicated investigators to monitor the organisation's 5000 staff; three years ago it had only five.
But despite a statement by Mr Clare to the contrary, Mr Pezzullo still lacks the power to terminate an employee known to be closely associated with organised crime figures on that ground alone, Fairfax has established.
Several investigations - including at least seven inquiries into fellow investigations or intelligence staff - raise questions about the management of sensitive Internal Affairs cases, including those involving high-level leaks and suspect associations with drug runners.
In October 2008, for example, an internal inquiry into an officer from ''Enforcement and Investigations'' was marked ''file to be closed''. The officer was alleged to be linked to a ''syndicate responsible for the importation of approx 100kgs of MDMA tablets and 140kg of cocaine''. Customs now says this friendship was with a third party who was linked to the syndicate and thus was not substantiated; yet the contemporaneous record of the investigation says her ''associations have been confirmed''.