Police investigation into red shirts ‘set up to fail’

22 Nov 2018 • Age, Melbourne (General News)
by Cameron Houston Benjamin Preiss

The police investigation of Labor’s “red shirts” affair has been systematically undermined from within, a source familiar with the probe says.

The Office of Public Prosecutions is assessing the strength of cases against more than a dozen Labor MPs, including six ministers, but is increasingly unlikely to make a recommendation on whether criminal charges should be laid before this weekend’s election.

The handling of the politically sensitive probe named Operation Ocotillo has infuriated some senior police, who expect the matter will be referred to Victoria’s corruption watchdog.

A source familiar with the investigation said the taskforce had been “set up to fail”, after repeated interference from high-ranking officers.

Some of the directives appear to be inconsistent with standard police procedure and have significantly weakened the cases against the MPs.

The red shirts affair has plagued Daniel Andrews’ government throughout the election campaign with the pressure intensifying last month after The Age revealed that Labor MPs had refused to cooperate with the investigation.

The Age can reveal detectives from the Ocotillo taskforce were told not to arrest former Labor treasurer John Lenders, who was identified in a damning ombudsman’s report as the architect of the scheme to rort the public purse to pay electorate officers before the 2014 election.

Despite his key role in the affair, no brief on Mr Lenders has been submitted to the OPP.

A senior police figure claimed the OPP was being denied important information and had been “deceived”. Police investigators have also been unable to apply for the mobile phone records of those MPs under investigation, which would indicate who they had spoken to at the time of the alleged offending.

Known as customer charge records or CCRs, the application to an external telecommunication provider for such records is common practice in most investigations of indictable offences.

Because warrants were not obtained, detectives were also unable to obtain potential evidence from MPs’ computers.

The Ocotillo taskforce has also been unable to obtain almost 90,000 documents from an ombudsman’s investigation, which found the red shirts scheme had breached Parliament’s members’ guides and was a misuse of public funds. A spokeswoman for the Victorian Ombudsman confirmed it had “not been formally asked by Victoria Police to provide information obtained by the investigation”.

The ombudsman’s investigation had obtained materials from an earlier police probe, known as Operation Peach, which found in 2016 that the allegations about Labor’s misconduct did not meet the threshold for a criminal prosecution.

While finding that past and present Labor MPs misused taxpayer funds, Victorian Ombudsman Deborah Glass also found no case for further police action.

The Ombudsman’s report found Labor’s electoral officer scheme was an “artifice” that breached the parliamentary members’ guide and was wrong.

The money was used to pay casual officers to work in the field three days a week, campaigning for Labor ahead of the 2014 election.

Six sitting ministers in the Andrews government were named in the Ombudsman’s report as beneficiaries of the scheme, including Sports Minister John Eren, affair was ‘set up to fail’ Attorney-General Martin Pakula, Special Minister of State Gavin Jennings, Youth Affairs Minister Jenny Mikakos, Corrections Minister Gayle Tierney and Energy Minister Lily D’Ambrosio.

Last month, The Age revealed that Labor MPs targeted by the investigation had refused to be interviewed by detectives.

The same officers were told that if MPs did present for interviews, they were not to be searched, photographed or have their fingerprints taken. The directive caused further disquiet among officers, amid claims it was inconsistent with standard police procedure and different to the treatment of 17 Labor staffers, who were raided, arrested and interviewed in August.

This week, Chief Commissioner Graham Ashton said the briefs of evidence had been with the OPP for “a couple of weeks”.

“It’s not in my hands at the minute. So as soon as they get back to us, we’ll . we’ll do it straight away as soon as we know,” he said.

The Age does not suggest that Mr Ashton had interfered with the investigation in any way.

A Victoria Police spokeswoman did not respond to questions from The Age about any intervention in the red shirts probe.

A Labor spokeswoman said it would be inappropriate to comment as it was an “ongoing matter”.

But shadow attorney-general John Pesutto said the revelations strengthened the opposition’s demand for a judicial inquiry.

“If there is evidence that there’s been some interfering with the investigation then that reinforces our call for a judicial inquiry,” he said.

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