Two Years, $3.5 Million for Ombudsman Police Internal Affairs Inquiry

The NSW Ombudsman, Bruce Barbour, has told a Parliamentary Committee that he anticipates an inquiry into potential serious misconduct in the NSW Police Force, the Crime Commission and the Police Integrity Commission (PIC) involving a 14 year old internal affairs operation will take at least two years and cost at least $3.5 million.

The Ombudsman assumed responsibility for the investigation, since codenamed “Operation Prospect”, in October last year . It arises from an investigation undertaken by the then NSW Police Special Crime and Internal Affairs (SCIA) unit, in conjunction with the Crime Commission and the PIC, known variously as “Operation Florida” (the PIC’s codename) and “Operation Mascot” (the Crime Commission’s codename).

The controversy centres on applications for warrants for listening devices and other surveillance measures, including one warrant naming 114 individuals, including high ranking police officers journalists. Such was the angst caused by subsequent revelations about the scope and purpose of some of the applications that the NSW Police established Strike Force Emblems in 2003 to investigate.

The resulting Emblems report was never publically released despite frequent urgings over the years from the then Opposition and the Police Association.

In May 2012, the Police Minister, Michael Gallacher, referred the Emblems Report to the Inspector of the Police Integrity Commission, David Levine, to determine whether it was possible to release the report.

A series of articles by Neil Mercer in the Sun Herald in June and September 2012 put the Emblems Report and the bitterness it had caused within the ranks of the NSW Police Force back well and truly into the spotlight.

After reviewing the Emblems report, Levine wrote to Gallacher advising:

The report of Strike Force Emblems I have found to be such an abstruse and unsatisfactory internal police document that it is not in the public interest for it, its findings (such as they are) and its recommendations (such as they are) to be made public.

With the utmost respect to those involved in the preparation of the Strike Force Emblems Report it is severely wanting in sound reasoning and logical exposition of investigations said to have been undertaken. Its findings and recommendations on my reading of accompanying internal police communications do not enjoy support or confidence among police commentators of high rank.

In evidence to the Parliamentary Committee on the Ombudsman, the Police Integrity Commission and the Crime Commission in February this year, Levine confirmed his lack of regard for the Emblems report:

The Hon. ADAM SEARLE: … In short, it was such a rubbish document it would have just been embarrassing to the institution if it was made public?

Mr LEVINE: Yes. It was a document so wanting in the requisite qualities to make it public.

In consultation with Levine, Premier Barry O’Farrell announced in October that the matter, and a series of complaints lodged by interested parties, would be referred to the NSW Ombudsman for investigation. Subsequently, legislative amendments were made to give the Ombudsman powers of compulsion over the Crime Commission and the Police Integrity Commission.

Putting a special unit in place, the Ombudsman advised that:

It is anticipated that Operation Prospect will be a protracted and resource intensive investigation … obtaining and analysing a significant volume of records and other evidentiary material and taking evidence in hearings from a potentially large number of witnesses.

Barbour told the Parliamentary Committee that he had obtained $1.5 million to fund Operation Prospect for 2012-3 and had asked for $2 million in the 2013-14 Budget

We have received a grant from the Department of Premier and Cabinet for 2012-13 of approximately $1.57 million for recurrent expenses, $1.168 million for employee-related expenses and approximately $400,000 is for capital expenditure. For 2013-2014 we estimated that we will be seeking just slightly in excess of $2 million in recurrent expenses of which $1.547 million will be employee related.

By way of comparison, the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) was given a special allocation of $370,000 in the 2012-13 Budget to fund the investigation that forms the basis of its current hearings into former Ministers Ian Macdonald and Eddie Obeid. The top up was granted, in part, because the investigation had been mandated by a Parliamentary resolution.

Making clear his relief at no longer having carriage of the matter, the PIC Inspector, David Levine, informed the Committee that he had been told “anecdotally” that the Ombudsman’s investigation had been allocated 10 investigators and would take two years.

Barbour subsequently told the Parliamentary committee that having required the production of documents, he has already received close to 1,350 boxes of records, with “… hundreds of thousands of pages and tens of thousands of documents and recordings and various other things.

Unlike comparable investigation by its peer agencies, such as the ICAC and PIC, the Ombudsman will not be holding any hearings in public, being expressly prohibited by its legislation. Therefore, barring any interim reports or unforeseen circumstances, the Ombudsman’s investigation will proceed unobserved until a final report, which might not see light until 2015.

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