Monday, June 25, 2012

Ombudsman George Brouwer and the 64-word email

Two reports by rival anti-corruption bodies tabled in state parliament on the same day (unusually, this time only one – the OPI one, of course – was first leaked to News Ltd*), and a sweeping re-shuffle of senior police ranks as the two reports were at the printers.  Just another ordinary 24 hours in Snowtown-on-the-Yarra, really.

The latest report by Ombudsman GeorgeBrouwer (PDF) centres on whether ex-2IC Victorian cop Sir Ken Jones leaked to an Age reporter a 64-word email from Department of Justice Secretary Penny Armytage, personally approving the in-prison co-location of Carl Williams with Matthew Johnson, the man who was later to murder Williams.  Technically, George Brouwer would say the “Who leaked?” matter was not his office’s but the OPI’s (see para 144), but in fact, neither the (still-unknown) leaker’s identity nor the leaked email are that important in the bigger picture.

Since April 2012, this email has been in the public domain (PDF), although a Google search shows that it has not been quoted in a single analysis (c.f. PDF republishing-bots).  For posterity, here it is as it appears in Appendix 3 of "The death of Mr Carl Williams at HM Barwon Prison – investigation into Corrections Victoria" April 2012 (PDF) - note that this email is in reply to a longer email from Rod Wise to Penny Armytage sent about 45 minutes earlier on 6 Jan 2009 (at 4:45pm, full text is also in Appendix 3); note also that an address in the “cc” field in both emails has been redacted: 

From: Penny Armytage
To: Rod Wise
Sent: 6 Jan 2009, 5:27pm


I feel reasonably comfortable with your proposal and note the fact that you have consulted the Police and they have no concerns about it.  Balancing all considerations it appears appropriate to accede to Carl Williams [sic] request on the basis that we will monitor the situation and review it as soon as any new factors emerge, especially with respect to further meetings with Vic Pol.


Even after careful reading and consideration, it is hard to understand why the highest-level recriminations have resulted from this email being leaked, as there is plenty of posterior-covering by Armytage in the email, leaving aside the issue of whether the “new factors” (of which there were plenty) that emerged in the 470-odd days between the email and Williams’ murder were indeed adequately “monitor[ed]” and “review[ed]” by Armytage’s “we” (which could just mean Penny Armytage and Rod Wise personally, or alternatively various permutations of the Department of Justice generally and its Corrections Victoria subsidiary specifically).

True to his previous form, though, the 70-year old Ombudsman George Brouwer does not so much forensically de-construct the documentary trail, as skip haphazardly through a documentary forest, while leaving “Easter eggs” – whether accidentally or deliberately, it is hard to tell – for subsequent careful foragers of his reports.  The latter (although regular readers of this blog will hardly need reminding) excludes the mainstream media – hence all MSM media coverage of the latest George Brouwer report has focused on the fact that it clears Sir Ken Jones of personally leaking the above email to an Age reporter.  Yes, the report does indeed reach this conclusion, but there’s much more to the story.

If the OPI ever does publicly report on who did then leak the above email to the Age (para 144), I suspect a big clue here would be in knowing the identity of the redacted “cc” recipient of the email.  Brouwer doesn’t comment in any way on this redaction, in either his latest or the April 2012 report.  My best guess on this recipient’s identity is that s/he is/was (i) a senior police figure, either from the plenary leadership ranks (at that time Christine Nixon was Chief Commissioner), or a Driver Taskforce (i.e. re the murder of the Hodsons, an anti-corruption witness and his wife) boss specifically, or (ii) a Corrections Victoria middle-manager, possibly the then General Manager of Barwon Prison, David Prideaux.  If it was a senior police figure, it can’t have been Sir Ken Jones, who only started with Victoria Police in May 2009.  However, according to Detective Superintendent Douglas Fryer, Jones did later acquire a copy of this email (para 55).
So what’s the real story behind that latest Ombudsman’s report?

Conveniently, Simon Overland himself cuts to the chase in para 118:

“My discussions with the Secretary of the Department of Premier and Cabinet, Ms Silver and Deputy Premier Ryan [at around 9:30am] on Friday 6 May 2011, were concerned with the general proposition of sending Mr Jones on leave ahead of his resignation taking effect. … My intention remained to require Mr Jones to take leave over the next couple of weeks, until I was briefed [at about 10am] about the Nick McKenzie article for The Age concerning the murder of Carl Williams and the roles of the Department of Justice and Corrections Victoria in his management … [emphasis added]

Overland’s context here is that his briefing – about an article that was to appear in the Age the next day 7 May, and which all derived from a meeting early the previous day, 5 May, between Age journo Nick McKenzie and Detective Superintendent Douglas Fryer, Senior Investigating Officer for the Driver Taskforce – was a proverbial last straw.

If so, it seems a highly contrived last straw.  It seems incredible to me that Overland was not briefed for a full day about the Fryer-McKenzie meeting when a number of senior police (three of whom, including Jones, are named in the report) had been briefed the previous day, and then Overland was briefed only by the second-hand say-so of Nicole McKechnie, then Director of Media and Communications at Victoria Police (who, to her credit, did promptly brief Overland soon after she herself was briefed by Fryer at around 9:30am on Friday 6 May 2011 (i.e. the very time Overland on the phone with Peter Ryan, getting the Police Minister’s two-weeks-or-so-time permission from to send Jones on “gardening leave”)).

You might think, if you hadn’t combed through the latest report, that there was a second-last straw for Overland here: that Overland was miffed that Jones, who Fryer had briefed shortly after his meeting with Age journo McKenzie on 5 May 2011 (para 57), hadn’t promptly filled his boss in on this, so instead leaving for Overland to learn from his Media and Communications Director the next day.  However, rather complicating such an explanation is that the two other (named) senior police who had also been briefed the previous day, albeit later than Jones, were Assistant Commissioners Graham Ashton (briefed at about 11am) and Jeff Pope (briefed at about noon) both of whom (AFAICT), were exemplary loyalists to Overland. 

More complicating still – and here are two of the report’s true nuggets – are the combined revelations of para’s 59 and 64.  Firstly, that  Fryer noted “Mr Ashton was not familiar with the issues surrounding the Driver Taskforce”, despite Ashton having been on the Petra Steering Committee (along with Overland and Assistant Commissioner Luke Cornelius: para 55), before that investigation was subsumed by Driver upon Williams’ murder.  It sounds like Fryer, fresh from his meeting with the Age journo, might as well have told a brick-wall as Ashton, then.  However, not be deterred, at noon that same day Fryer briefed another Assistant Commissioner, Jeff Pope.  While Fryer’s recollection of this briefing is not elaborated in the report, there is the not-so-little detail that the same Jeff Pope was present subsequently at the 10:30am executive meeting on 6 May 2011 –  the crucial, final step in dispatching Jones immediately. 

The Ombudsman’s report makes no comment on this coincidence, and it seems that neither Ashton nor Pope were interviewed in the course of its preparation.  It would be interesting to know what Pope may have said (or not) at that meeting, if Overland piped up, as appears plausible under his own version of events, that it was outrageous that he was seemingly the last person in Victoria Police to have been briefed on the 5 May meeting between Fryer and Age journo McKenzie.

So there appears to be no plausible actual last straw, under Overland’s own version of events.  I have previously speculated that the likely reason for Overland’s dispatching Jones immediately on 6 May 2011 was that it was done at the actual or implied request of Department of Justice Secretary (then and now), Penny Armytage.  Perhaps not surprisingly, given that the Department of Justice controls the Ombudsman’s purse strings (at the very least), its recent report leaves the angle of inquiry well alone.

I’ll finish by emphasising how little the 7 May Age article was actually critical of police, as opposed to the Department of Justice and Corrections Victoria, re the Williams’ murder. Apart from para 118, quoted above, aka Overland’s last straw, in which he only mentions the two non-police agencies, there is para 61 (Fryer’s briefing to police media boss McKechnie), which other than mentioning mysterious “other matters”, also emphasizes the Department of Justice and Corrections Victoria, and not Victoria Police.  Even the 7 May Age article itself, although inevitably muddied by the breaking news about Jones being marched out the door being interwoven into the same story, has at its core this:

“It is understood Sir Ken and several other senior police and government officials held concerns about the decision by Justice Department officials, including department secretary Penny Armytage, to approve the moving of Williams from isolation at Barwon Prison to the maximum-security Acacia unit.

The decision to place Williams in Acacia raised serious questions about the quality of assessments done by Corrections Victoria and department officials reporting to Ms Armytage on the risk to the drug dealer’s life. Police should have also been aware of the potential threats to Williams posed by other Acacia inmates.

The Saturday Age understands authorities have discovered an email sent from Ms Armytage’s office approving his relocation to Acacia.

An investigation by The Saturday Age into the bungling of the moving of Carl Williams inside Barwon Prison has detailed:

■His relocation to a unit occupied by violent underworld figures, including one with close ties to a corrupt ex-detective connected to the murder of the Hodsons.

■The failure to find and act on easily obtainable information inside the prison that suggested Williams’ life could be at risk.

■The failure to move Williams back to isolation when rumours and media articles suggesting he was a police informer swept through the prison, including shortly before his death.

■The allowing of prisoners to store in their cells highly sensitive police documents containing information that put Williams’ life at risk.”   

What journo McKenzie doesn’t say in this story (but apparently knew at the time: para 55) is that the “authorities” who were then in possession of the above email either consisted of, or included, Sir Ken Jones.

In the end, the latest Ombudsman’s report has no choice but to dance around this awkward bulge in the pants of the facts.  Faced with a legitimate ask, you might think – either sidling up to Sir Ken Jones or Penny Armytage – George Brouwer conspicuously chooses to partner neither.     

Update 26 June 2012

Penny Armytage has indicated her resignation from the Department of Justice.  Alas, her next career move is not to a proverbial cave on the Afghanistan/Pakistan border, but to a proverbial fortified mansion in Abbottabad, aka accounting and consulting firm KPMG. 

Her timing is interesting as, apart from the Carl Williams’ murder controversy, things were actually looking up for Ms Armytage, with her having sent a mass email to Department of Justice staff, detailing 480 job cuts in the department and related agencies at 7.53pm on Friday 22 June.  While other CEOs might squirm at implementing such sweeping redundancies, Ms Armytage appears to be something of an expert at downsizing.  Her apparent track record re Victoria’s witness-protection program makes even “Chainsaw” Al Dunlap look like a wimp.  No doubt KPMG is interested in exploring the private-sector possibilities of extreme downsizing, Armytage-style.

As for the future of current or pending inquiries regarding her public-sector decision-making, you might say at this stage, that Justice has been done.   

* "OPI concedes failure against force's culture", John Ferguson, Australian June 21, 2012 12:00am, i.e. about 10 hours before it was officially tabled. 

Monday, June 18, 2012

Fairfax redacted

Today’s news that Fairfax is to cut 1900 staff (including about 380 journalists) cheers me with Schadenfreude.

Having survived multiple workplace redactions/reductions myself, and being in the journalism game part-time here for love/obsession alone, I really can’t share the pain of these highly-paid, (about to be) newly unemployed dinosaurs. They certainly didn’t provide a guard of honour for me, with or without bonus pitiful-weeping sound effects, outside Centrelink in 1996, 2002, 2006 or 2007.

My resolve here is hardened by a Fairfax Op Ed piece just last week, which dumped on bloggers like me thus:

Many independent writers and bloggers provide commentary rather than reporting, depending on mainstream journalists' facts for their analysis. Much of it is very good, but I doubt that the less glamorous aspects of our civic life will be covered by a well-intentioned brigade of bloggers . . . High-end journalism is being eroded the world over, and the democratisation of micro-publishing isn't an antidote. David Simon, a former Baltimore newspaperman and creator of the television series The Wire, testified at a Senate hearing into the future of journalism. He said: "You do not, in my city, run into bloggers or so-called citizen journalists at City Hall or in the courthouse hallways or at the bars where police officers gather. You don't see them consistently nurturing and then pressing others”.

Yep, I’ll happily admit to never speaking to – much less “nurturing” and/or “pressing” – police officers. If cosy relationships between journalists and police officers have gotten the broadsheets (which in Fairfax’s case will be tabloids physically from next year, anyway) and the police into their present dysfunctional marriage (e.g. the skating over corruption in Victoria by both parties), indeed I wear this status as a badge of honour.

And while I don’t do much shoe-leather reportage – instead mainly relying on a modus operandi I term forensic Googling – my part-time coverage of last year’s Matthew Johnson murder trial, which included several very-reportable (IMO) facts or developments that none of the four (at least) MSM journalists also present in the court-room took up, convinced me that the mainstream media is akin to a dementia patient on life support, just waiting to be euthanised.

Another recent example of the pathetic enfeeblement – specifically at the Age this time – is to do with the leaking of last year’s OPI report “Crossing the Line” to News Limited, on the eve of its parliament tabling on October 2011. Given the supposed rivalry between Fairfax and News, I would have thought the Age would have gone in much harder than accepting, at face value, the lame official explanation for the leak (accidental premature website posting).  Ahem, I sure went in harder.  And rubbing salt into the wound here, Saturday’s Australian appears to baldly, if belatedly, admit the truth: that there was (as I had thought all along), a deliberate, old-fashioned leak to News: “Last year’s OPI report, called Crossing the Line, was leaked to The Australian 10 hours before it was tabled in parliament in October [2011]”. “Deputy Premier still fighting for his reputation as political enemy continues to throw bombs”, John Ferguson, Australian 16 June 2012, no URL.

Gee, if I were a senior editorial figure at Fairfax, I’d be putting my commercial rival’s admission on Saturday, that they corruptly obtained a sensitive document, on the next day’s front page (i.e. 17 June 2012), but in the two days since, of course, not a peep from Fairfax about this. Once again – and it almost pains me to be able to say this so regularly – you read it here first.

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