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As a royal commission investigates the use of informants by Victoria Police, questions are being raised again about corruption in the force. By Martin McKenzie-Murray.

Police informants inquiry

Police informant Nicola Gobbo, who has been revealed as Lawyer X.
Credit: Supplied

Victoria Police Assistant Commissioner Neil Paterson had the unpleasant distinction of being the first witness to appear before the Royal Commission into the Management of Police Informants late last month. The unpleasantness of this was cheekily signalled by Chris Winneke, QC, the counsel assisting the commissioner. During introductory questions, Paterson, the head of Victoria Police’s intelligence and covert support command, was asked to confirm his CV.

“You’ve got a graduate certificate in disaster management?” Winneke asked.

“That’s correct.”

“You may well be an honorary doctorate in disaster management by the end of this process.”

The commission was announced by Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews last December, after a long chain of publicly suppressed litigation was finally exhausted in the High Court – meaning the details of an extraordinary legal scandal could, largely, be reported.

The litigation began after Victoria’s anti-corruption authority, the Independent Broad-based Anti-corruption Commission (IBAC), investigated Victoria Police’s use of a solicitor as an informant between 2005 and 2009. The problem? The solicitor was informing on her own clients, breaching her profession’s ethic of client privilege, and potentially jeopardising their convictions.

IBAC appointed retired justice Murray Kellam to investigate. His report, completed in February 2015, was handed to Victoria Police, who in turn passed it to the state’s director of public prosecutions, the DPP. Realising that the convictions of seven men were potentially contaminated – drug baron Tony Mokbel, and six of his associates – the DPP felt obliged to notify them. Victoria Police objected, citing immunity from public interest on the grounds the DPP’s disclosure would reveal their informant’s identity and endanger her life.

So began years of litigation in closed courts. The Herald Sun, critical to the story’s exposure, began its own parallel litigation. Successive courts found in favour of disclosure, and in December the High Court delivered a scathing judgement. “Generally speaking, it is of the utmost importance that assurances of anonymity of the kind that were given to EF are honoured. If they were not, informers could not be protected and persons would be unwilling to provide information to the police which may assist in the prosecution of offenders. That is why police informer anonymity is ordinarily protected by public interest immunity. But where, as here, the agency of police informer has been so abused as to corrupt the criminal justice system, there arises a greater public interest in disclosure to which the public interest in informer anonymity must yield.”

The informant was variously known as EF, 3838 and Lawyer X – the nomenclature of the courts, police and tabloids, respectively. For years her identity was a fairly open secret, and she had long been suspected by the underworld of duplicity. Last month, restrictions on reporting her name were finally lifted, and the collaboration of Nicola Gobbo and Victoria Police became the focus of a royal commission.

 

“I suppose essentially the point is this,” Winneke said to Paterson on the second day of hearings. “This statement is not a comprehensive encapsulation of the history of the relationship between Nicola Gobbo and Victoria Police.”

“Absolutely it’s not comprehensive,” Paterson agreed. “I think it would take volumes of a statement to be comprehensive, rather than 71 pages.”

This exchange reflected Winneke’s frustration – shared by the chair of the commission, Justice Margaret McMurdo – about the delayed, incomplete and often fragmented provision of information by Victoria Police to the commission.

Extraordinarily, the royal commission was founded on the belief that Gobbo’s involvement with Victoria Police spanned some three-and-a-half years, between 2005 and 2009. In fact, she had first been in contact with police in 1993, and was already twice registered as an informant before her registration in 2005. The commission’s terms of reference had to be amended, and it obliged the resignation of its commissioner Mal Hyde, who had served at Victoria Police in the 1990s.

The exchange between Winneke and Paterson was also stunning for this simple reason: it is extraordinary that one woman could have such a long, strange and damaging involvement with police that a 71-page statement detailing it might be considered scant.

 

The niece of a former Victorian governor and justice, Nicola Gobbo belongs to an eminent family, long distinguished in the law.

Her involvement with police began in 1993, while studying law at Melbourne University. Gobbo was living with her drug-dealing boyfriend Brian Wilson near campus. After a raid, police there found trafficable quantities of cannabis and amphetamines. Gobbo herself pleaded guilty to possession, and no conviction was recorded.

Two years later, police raided the same house. Wilson was still dealing. It was in this year that Gobbo was first registered as an informant, and plotted with police to introduce Wilson to an undercover officer. The sting operation was abandoned, in part because of Gobbo’s unreliability.

By 1999, now admitted to the bar and still a young woman, Nicola Gobbo had already informed on her boyfriend, employer and clients – and was involved in a bizarre political hoax. On the eve of the 1996 federal election, the treasurer at the time, Ralph Willis, fronted the media with a bombshell: documents had been sent to his office detailing a secret pact between then Victorian premier Jeff Kennett and federal opposition leader John Howard to dramatically cut state funding. But the documents were forged. Gobbo contacted federal authorities and shared her suspicion that a fellow Melbourne University student, the Liberal-aligned campus politician Scott Ryan, who today is president of the senate, was the forger. Ryan denied this, and no evidence was found to support Gobbo’s claim. Today, most assume Gobbo had confected the complicated ruse herself.

In court documents, Gobbo’s explanations for her behaviour were contradictory. She fluctuated between self-preservation and altruism as explanations for why she wanted to inform on drug baron Tony Mokbel, for example. Gobbo could never quite get all her stories straight, and now that the long history of her overtures and co-operation with law enforcement is clearer, it’s apparent that from a young age Gobbo had a strong, destructive desire to play agent provocateur. Forrest Gump kept kissing history accidentally, compelled by an innocent curiosity. Gobbo was very different – she was continually insinuating herself into some of Victoria’s seediest legal events.

In the 1990s, at least two Victoria Police officers judged Gobbo to be an unreliable and inappropriate informant, and advised against her use. While planning the undercover operation against Wilson, Detective Senior Sergeant Jack Blayney wrote that Gobbo was a “loose cannon” and was “making her own arrangements and not liaising with investigators”.

She was enjoying her role too much. Two years later, another police officer, Detective Senior Constable Chris Lim, would also note Gobbo’s suspicious enthusiasm to play informant, and wrote that some officers’ relationships with her were “inappropriate”. Lim was also, seemingly, one of very few officers to make the point – clearly and early on – that police should disengage her for the simple reason that she was a solicitor.

Incomplete record-making, and dysfunctional record management, meant that neither Blayney’s nor Lim’s analysis was available to officers years later, when the gangland wars would inspire Gobbo to offer herself again. Her 1999 registration as an informant, for example, mentioned neither her occupation as a solicitor, nor the fact – as the form obliged – that she had co-operated with police before.

One striking thing to emerge from the commission’s hearings so far is just how many opportunities police had to correct, or cease, their collaboration with Gobbo – and how shockingly persistent both parties were in continuing it. There was no shortage of warnings, and nor were the principles that were being violated obscure ones. Regardless, no legal advice was sought on the appropriateness of Gobbo’s use as a source until 2011.

In 2001, Nicola Gobbo began representing Victoria’s most dangerous men – the thugs and sociopaths of Melbourne’s long and murderous gang wars. It was an association, lawyers who knew her tell me, that she revelled in. But Gobbo wasn’t content to be merely close to notoriety – she began engaging in clandestine games. One of Gobbo’s higher-profile clients was gangland assassin Carl Williams, whose family she was close to. Against Williams’ wishes, Gobbo began representing a gangland rival: Lewis Moran. Gobbo would later say that Williams’ associate and fellow killer Andrew Veniamin threatened to kill her.

 

Intelligence agencies have borrowed some terms from immunology. Officers might speak of their human sources like a surgeon speaks of a patient, and of the system that analyses and shares their intelligence like a surgeon speaks of the hospital. “Sterility”, “contamination” and “quarantine” each have their analogues in intelligence: the surgeon is not only concerned with the specific treatment of a patient but also their safe, uncontaminated passage through the hospital. Moving them might risk infection, and yet treatment demands their transfer. How best to do that?

In his testimony, Neil Paterson discussed the “sterile corridor” – an intelligence term describing a safe system for the management of human sources. Essentially, it describes two practices: the separation of police investigators from informants; and the safe transmission of a source’s intelligence to investigators, what intelligence officers call “sterilising” the information, which might simply be the act of anonymising it.

Until recently, Victoria Police’s handling of informants was as sterile as a mediaeval abattoir. Which was no secret. It wasn’t until 1986 that the force had a written policy regarding their use. A 2004 law enforcement conference in Victoria singled out Victoria Police’s compromised informant system, and the dissolution of the force’s corrupt drug squad around the same time was required, in part, through “inappropriate relations” between police and informants. During the gangland wars, police informants and witnesses were murdered – their status likely leaked by corrupt police.

One effect of this royal commission is the ventilation of Victoria Police’s grimiest history – corruption, negligence, murder. It remains early days for the commission, and former heads of Victoria Police – and its current serving chief commissioner – have yet to appear. As Paterson agreed in his testimony, it’s hard to believe a few of them didn’t know about the reckless engagement of Nicola Gobbo.

An interim report is due in July.

 

Martin McKenzie-Murray worked as an adviser to the Chief Commissioner of Victoria Police in 2013.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Apr 6, 2019 as "Cop circles". Subscribe here.

Martin McKenzie-Murray
is The Saturday Paper’s chief correspondent.