It was, Simon Overland said, a showstopper. That’s how he described Operation Briars to a hand-picked group of police at the beginning of 2007. The aim of the top-secret investigation was to charge a serving police officer with helping a gunman kill a male prostitute. ”It is not an issue I thought I would ever have to deal with,” Overland would say later.Three years on, and Overland is now Victoria’s Chief Commissioner, but finds himself dealing with another issue he probably never imagined. He is at the centre of the show and at war with Australia’s national broadsheet, which accuses him not only of breaking the law but single-handedly destroying Operation Briars, a crucially important investigation involving potentially corrupt police.Overland’s reputation is under attack from two powerful forces. One is former police union boss Paul Mullett, whose career was destroyed by Operation Briars and the related police corruption probe Operation Diana. Since the case against him failed last year, Mullett has waged a document-based guerilla war against Overland, whom he hates. The former assistant commissioner Noel Ashby, who equally loathes Overland and was his rival for the top job, is helping from the wings.The other force is The Australian. It says its explosive series of articles about Overland and Victoria’s police corruption watchdog, the Office of Police Integrity (OPI), depicted as bungling, secretive and unaccountable, were born of a genuine journalistic desire to assess Operation Briars and the OPI’s work after the spectacular collapse of its cases against Mullett and Ashby.Overland argues the newspaper is using facts selectively and ignoring the context of what was happening in Victoria at the time.At play also is a toxic feud between the newspaper and Overland, who accused it of endangering his officers by exposing terrorism raids last August. Similarly, the OPI says The Australian has it in its crosshairs because it criticised the paper’s conduct.Overland and the OPI director, Michael Strong, believe this ”disgraceful” and ”concerted” campaign is a nasty exercise in payback, and last Friday there was some evidence of that. Fairfax newspapers revealed over the weekend two incidents in which senior executives of News Ltd, publishers of The Australian, appeared to threaten law enforcement agencies in Victoria and NSW.Amid the murk of these agendas is an allegation: did Victoria’s chief policeman break the law? Was he let off too lightly by the police corruption watchdog? Does he have a case to answer?Overland and the OPI insist he does not, but on the evidence available, it appears his actions did have an inadvertent impact on the investigation. As The Sunday Age first reported last September, senior legal experts believed his use of information from a phone tap was a breach of the Telecommunications (Interception and Access) Act. The OPI says it has assessed the incident and believes he did not breach the law, but it refuses to release its legal advice and barely mentioned the incident in its final report on the events of 2007.This one conversation, as Overland himself admits, set off a chain of events. The chain ended, as the evidence shows, in the key suspects of Operation Briars being warned their phones were ”off”. In hindsight, this was a blow to the investigation. But did it derail Briars? Probably not, because the investigation was already severely compromised.Operation Briars officially began on March 26, 2007. Months earlier, a known criminal had come forward to admit he was the gunman who shot dead male prostitute Shane Chartres-Abbott in June 2003. He was willing, also, to point the finger at one serving policeman, Peter Lalor, a close mate of Mullett’s, and one former policeman, David ”Docket” Waters. He claimed Waters was present at a meeting when plans were discussed and that Lalor provided prior assistance in his murder of Chartres-Abbott by handing over his address. Both Lalor and Waters denied the allegations.Police had consistently said throughout the horrific gangland wars that there was no link between gangland killings and corrupt cops, despite suspicions. Overland, who had led the police’s successful taskforce into the gangland war, would later admit in an affidavit that the case was ”the smoking gun the media had been looking for”, the link between the underworld and police that would reawaken calls for a royal commission.A board of management, including Overland and the OPI’s Graham Ashton, was set up to oversee the Briars taskforce, and on April 13 police began monitoring six phone taps. It has always been something of a mystery why Operation Diana was set up on May 30 to investigate Noel Ashby, but according to a report by the special investigations monitor – the OPI’s oversight body – the board began to suspect senior officers of Victoria Police were leaking confidential taskforce information.The two covert operations made a spectacular public debut in a series of high-drama OPI hearings in November 2007. The results have been less spectacular. Mullett left the force but his case failed for lack of evidence. Ashby resigned but his case was thrown out because the OPI failed to delegate its powers properly to the retired judge overseeing the hearings. Former police media director Stephen Linnell, caught leaking to his mate Ashby, pleaded guilty to charges arising from the same flawed hearings and is now appealing. Lalor has denied any involvement and was never charged. Somehow the OPI has pitched this as a success.There’s no doubt that in August 2007 Overland was working in a poisonous environment. As Michael Strong pointed out on Friday, Overland was dealing with treachery: he was ”not only being undermined from without, but betrayed from within”. Mullett, using the power of the police association, and Ashby, using his power and access as a senior policeman, colluded against Overland and police commissioner Christine Nixon. Overland and Nixon were determined to rid the Victoria Police of its links to the underworld, but Mullett and the police association appeared to resist. The union funded police accused of being corrupt and campaigned against the establishment of the OPI. (The police union secretary, Greg Davies, denies that union officials ”have or ever will support corruption or criminal conduct”.)On August 14, Overland received a phone call from the manager of the Briars taskforce, Rod Wilson. Mullett and Lalor, he told Overland, had been heard on a phone tap talking about a $120,000 executive management course that had been offered to the then deputy commissioner in Fontainebleau, France. The two men were talking about leaking it to radio station 3AW’s Rumour File. Overland went to Linnell and said: ”Look, you just need to be aware I’ve got a call from Rod.” Linnell was on the high-level advisory group for Briars and knew Wilson was heading the taskforce.”I understand Mullett and Lalor are talking about this. I understand they’re going to run it through 3AW … You need to watch it.”The law covering phone taps is necessarily strict on how officers use material. It must be a ”permitted use” that is ”a purpose connected with an investigation of, or an inquiry into, alleged misbehaviour or alleged improper conduct of an officer of that state”. Experts in this law told The Sunday Age last year that managing the media was clearly not a permitted use.Overland says it was a permitted use because he was trying to protect the investigation from what he calls ”collateral attack” – the campaign being waged by Mullett to undermine him and the investigation. Strong, in a statement on Friday, agreed with him.But in many ways Overland’s explanation does not make sense. Even if the Fontainebleau rumour did undermine him, which is debatable, how could this have an impact on a top-secret investigation no one knows about?At this point in the investigation, Mullett, who talked regularly with his ”comrade” Lalor, was not supposed to know about the taskforce.Possibly breaking the law is one thing. But The Australian last week went much further. This ”critical error of judgment”, the paper said, ”led to a series of indiscretions by others – and the collapse of the covert police probe Operations Briars”.Overland himself admitted to 3AW’s Neil Mitchell last week that his actions did spark a chain of events.During the OPI’s public hearings, media reports focused on a key event – Linnell showing Ashby the Briars terms of reference on his desk computer. But the transcripts, affidavits, OPI case logs and reports show that this event happened because of what had happened the day before: the Overland admission to Linnell about the Fontainebleau trip.In his report, retired judge Murray Wilcox, QC, who presided over the private and public hearings, said: ”It is clear that Mr Linnell knew the Mullett-Lalor call of 14 August had been intercepted; Mr Overland told him so. It is clear that he made Mr Ashby aware of his concern that Mr Mullett’s phone might be ‘off’.”In less than 48 hours of Overland’s direction to Linnell, the two main suspects of Briars had been warned about their phones being ”off”. Overland was not scrutinised for sparking this chain of events in the OPI’s final report on operations Diana and Briars, tabled in Parliament. The chronology at the beginning of the report has five entries on August 14. Not one of them mentions Overland’s conversation with Linnell.The question is, did this kill Operation Briars? According to the evidence, the investigation was probably already fatally wounded. Several months earlier, on June 16, police became aware that Age investigative journalist Nick McKenzie knew about Briars, the criminal witness and that police were involved.But even more seriously, a week later on June 26, Rod Wilson became aware that Waters and another Briars person of interest, Peter Alexander, knew about the taskforce. In a sworn statement, Wilson said the pair knew about the identity of the star witness and the circumstances of his alibi.What is crucial is whether Lalor knew his phone was tapped before August 16. Given what Waters knew in June, it is likely that he told Lalor and he would have at least suspected his phone was tapped. In an interview with the OPI in October 2007, Luke Cornelius, the then head of ethical standards, complained about the early breaches of security. ”The thing that sticks in my craw is that it looks like the breach – if that can be established – the breach of confidentiality occurred very early on in the piece.”OPI investigator Sharon Kerrison, who gave evidence that she had listened to more than 5000 of Ashby’s phone calls, more than 2000 of Mullett’s, and ”numerous” conversations of Lalor’s, replied: ”Yeah, it did.”On one reading of events, Overland, with a bit of ego and in the midst of a brutal campaign waged against him personally and against his and others’ efforts to clean up the force, tried to manage yet another attempt to undermine him and his investigation. This is a far cry from Mullett’s and Ashby’s behaviour, which the Ombudsman, George Brouwer, said displayed ”betrayal, collusion, deceit and abuse of authority”. On another reading, Overland acted out of self-interest and, trying to protect his reputation, The Australian argues, broke the law and breached the security of one of the police’s most important murder investigations.If Ashby’s case had gone to trial, his legal team was intending to pursue these issues with ”some degree of force”. But Ashby walked free without a trial and, without an independent anti-corruption commission, the issue continues to fester. This is probably why, almost three years after Overland had that conversation with Stephen Linnell, it is still being talked about.After November’s state election, regardless of which party wins, Victoria will get an anti-corruption commission. Mullett, no doubt, will bide his time until then. The problem for him, however, is that if the OPI is transferred into the new structure with no change of personnel, the police watchdog is likely to remain reluctant to reopen the wounds of 2007.
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