Last month the former Victorian Labor factional warrior and discarded minister from the Andrews government, Adem Somyurek, got enough support for a motion in the state’s Upper House to refer the “Red Shirts” affair to the corruption watchdog, the Independent Broad-based Anti-corruption Commission (IBAC). Somyurek declared that the electoral rort that elevated Daniel Andrews to Premier in 2014, using public funds to employ Labor operatives to campaign in marginal seats, was “the biggest political scandal in Victorian history”. However, there are two other contenders worthy of consideration for that title: the Lawyer X Affair and the Persecution of Cardinal George Pell. They have some revealing connections.
Although they were factional enemies, once Labor was returned to office at the 2018 election Andrews appointed Somyurek Minister for Local Government. The year before, the City of Whittlesea on Melbourne’s northern suburban outskirts had appointed former Chief Commissioner of Victoria Police, Simon Overland, its Chief Executive Officer. Overland is now best known for his role in the Lawyer X scandal. During his time as Chief Commissioner from 2009 to 2011, he personally approved the recruitment of the criminal defence lawyer Nicola Gobbo as a secret police informer who provided information that put her own gangster clients in prison.
Overland was also known as a long-time loyal supporter of the Labor Party. He was forced to resign his position in 2011 after the Victorian police ombudsman accused him of doctoring crime statistics to support Labor at a time when law and order had become a big election issue. I recorded much of this in this column in December but will do a short reprise here.
The City of Whittlesea was itself a cauldron of factional infighting and in December 2019 Overland’s opponents on the council had the numbers to sack him. This happened at a time when publicity was rife about the Royal Commission into the Management of Police Informants under Margaret McMurdo. Overland was sacked by the council just a week before he was due to give evidence to the commission himself.
Premier Andrews was furious at the Whittlesea decision. He immediately moved to take revenge on the council and anyone who defended it. He terminated Adem Somyurek as minister, and appointed himself Minister for Local Government in his place. Andrews then sacked the entire Whittlesea council and replaced them with his own appointed administrators. This all happened from March to June 2020.
The connection between Overland and the prosecution of George Pell came in June 2019 when Overland used his position as Whittlesea CEO to give a job to a then unemployed rock singer and casual bartender, known as Witness J, the former choirboy who falsely accused Cardinal George Pell of child sexual assault in St Patrick’s Cathedral, Melbourne. While Pell languished in Melbourne’s Assessment Prison, Witness J enjoyed his first full-time employment in five years.
Walter Starck observed on Quadrant Online about this kind of government employment: “How better to assure that Witness J remains careful about anything he might say regarding the Pell trial, than to buy his ongoing caution with a well-paying salary for an undemanding job followed by a comfortable pension.”
There is a further connection between Overland and the Pell case that also should be better known. This is Overland’s relationship with Detective Inspector Paul Sheridan, who among Victoria Police personnel did most to secure the trial and initial conviction that sent Pell to prison for more than a year.
SHERIDAN joined Victoria Police in 1974. As well as completing Arts and Law degrees while on the job, he also took basic and advanced detective training. His early career included detective work for drugs, missing persons, homicide and organised crime. In 1998 he became a celebrity when he headed the multi-squad Lorimer Taskforce that provided the evidence that jailed two men for the murder of Victorian police officers Sergeant Gary Silk and Senior Constable Rodney Miller. The four-year manhunt for the killers was turned into one of the episodes of the television crime series Underbelly, in which Brett Climo starred as Sheridan.
In 2008, when Sheridan was a Superintendent of the inner-urban Melbourne region, Overland appointed him to conduct a review of the leaking of documents from Victoria Police’s elite Intelligence and Covert Services Division. The investigation and new security measures which Sheridan advised so impressed Overland that in 2010 he promoted him to head the Division itself.
It was there that Sheridan came to know about the information services provided by Lawyer X, Nicola Gobbo, and Overland’s responsibility for them. He was experienced and educated enough to know at the time that the connection between Gobbo and Victoria Police corrupted the prosecutions of her clients and debased the criminal justice system, as the High Court found when adjudicating on the issue in 2018. He also knew by then who else within the police hierarchy also knew of Gobbo’s role, and that it was a matter of strict confidentiality within the force itself. Not only defence lawyers of criminals were to be kept in the dark but Victoria’s own Crown Prosecutors were not to know either.
Sheridan retained that position until February 2015, when he was made Detective Inspector of the Serious Crime Division. His responsibilities there were for police squads devoted to fields he knew well: homicide, missing persons, arson and explosives. But he also became responsible for squads in the field of sex crimes, of which he had no experience. This included the Sano Taskforce on sexual abuse against children, and Operation Tethering which had been formed in March 2013 with the sole intention of finding evidence to nail George Pell.
Since 2012, the principal public figure in Victoria Police on the issue of child sexual abuse had been Deputy Commissioner Graham Ashton. It was Ashton who made the submission to the 2012 parliamentary inquiry on the subject and fielded questioning by its members. It was Ashton who also had most influence on how the lower ranks of the police hierarchy responded to the crime. In July 2015, Ashton was promoted to Chief Commissioner. Almost immediately, he made a radical change to Operation Tethering, dropping the police previously responsible who, after two years of investigation, had no runs on the board. He turned to Sheridan to salvage the case against Pell.
However, Sheridan too found very little he could use. His detectives recorded interviews in Ballarat with complainants who made accusations about child sexual abuse at the local hearings of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. He found that the few witnesses who accused Pell were mostly psychiatric cases or local petty criminals motivated by the inquiry’s publicity and the prospect of compensation payments.
By the end of 2015 all Sheridan had was a story by a former choirboy who claimed that in 1997 he and a friend had been sexually abused by Pell in the priests’ sacristy of St Patrick’s Cathedral soon after Mass on a Sunday morning. Two desperate media appeals by police for people to come forward if they knew of any similar incidents, at either the cathedral or the city of Ballarat, were flops. A police raid for documents in the cathedral’s offices produced nothing of value.
Moreover, when he finally got around to interviewing Pell himself in Rome in 2016, Sheridan discovered the choirboy’s story of sex after Mass did not hold up. As Pell made clear in the interview, there was no time in the priests’ sacristy when a sexual assault could have taken place, it was impossible for the boys to leave their formal procession and get to the room when it was empty, and Pell was never alone after Mass as the choirboy claimed.
Rather than give the whole game away, Sheridan turned to the methods of policing that had served his career so well in the past. The choirboy’s original statements, which had already been revised to make them more credible for the committal hearings, were revised again. By the time Pell first faced a trial in court in August 2018 there was even more revising done to cover up some more of the holes in the story exposed at committal.
NOW, NOT ALL of Sheridan’s colleagues in Victoria Police were as impressed by him as Overland and Ashton had been. At the same time as he oversaw the Pell case in 2015, and while the news media and public opinion were overwhelmingly on his side, Sheridan had some problems of his own generated by some of his fellow detectives in Victoria Police. Their target was the case that had made him famous, the murder of police officers Miller and Silk in 1998.
One of the convicted murderers in this case had always declared he was not present when his co-accused shot the officers. He offered a witness who gave him an alibi. Most of the evidence in the case was based on the fine detail of debris retrieved from the crime scene, which identified the car from which shots were fired, plus the final words of Senior Constable Rodney Miller to one of the first police on the scene as Miller lay dying on the ground nearby. In his review of the evidence used to convict the murderers, the Homicide Detective Sergeant Ron Iddles found that the statement given at the trial recording the final words uttered by Miller had been altered. Instead of the dying policeman’s words referring to two gunmen, the original statement written by the constable who comforted Miller to his end referred to only one:
Original statement: … I said to him “Did you hit him?” and he replied “I don’t think so.” I closed the chamber of the firearm and replaced the firearm on the ground where I had found it.
Statement presented to court: … I said to him “Did you hit him?” and he replied “I don’t think so.” I also asked him, “Were they in a car or on foot?” and he replied “They were on foot.” I asked him “How long ago did it happen?” and he replied, “Couple of minutes.” Miller was quite obviously in pain so I didn’t ask him any more questions. I tried to comfort him. I closed the chamber of the firearm and replaced the firearm on the ground where I had found it.
This alteration allowed Sheridan and his team to supplement their largely forensic case, which had not identified more than one guilty person, with a winning hand that persuaded the jury to declare that two were guilty.
Iddles, however, found little support for his findings within Victoria Police. His original review had been made in 2012-13 but the hierarchy was unwilling to question Sheridan’s methods or the trial conviction. The hierarchy advised the Attorney-General in the Andrews government, Martin Pakula, not to re-open the case.
Iddles eventually resigned from the police force in 2015, and took his case to IBAC. The anti-corruption commission opened a file on it but took its time. By 2017 it had launched a fully-fledged inquiry named Operation Gloucester, which required the presence of Sheridan as a witness. IBAC published its findings, as well as the transcripts of its interrogation of witnesses, in July 2020. The IBAC report, titled Operation Gloucester (available online), targeted Sheridan as one of the major offenders of improper evidentiary and disclosure practices, especially for supplementing the original witness statements made by or given to police with excerpts from statements recorded many months later that altered the meaning of the original:
Victoria’s independent police oversight body, IBAC, reveals that improper evidentiary and disclosure practices were used by some Victoria Police officers connected to the investigation of the murders of Sergeant Gary Silk and Senior Constable Rodney Miller in 1998. A number of statements made by important witnesses were never included in the prosecution brief or disclosed at trial.
IBAC is concerned that the improper practices identified in Operation Gloucester continue to be used by some Victoria Police officers today, and this has the potential to adversely impact the administration of justice in Victoria.
In short, not only was Sheridan’s approach unacceptable in the Miller–Silk case, but it had been rife within Victoria Police for decades, in particular among the fields for which Sheridan had long had responsibilities: homicide, missing persons, arson and explosives, and sex crimes. Without mentioning the Pell case, IBAC condemned practices that occurred during the period of his prosecution. IBAC said:
Because Victoria Police has never clearly called out and stopped such improper practices, IBAC has found there is a real risk that these practices continue to be used by some police today. We’ve seen recent cases, for example, involving the contamination of statements, fabrication of contemporaneous notes, and non-disclosure of relevant evidence.
These practices are not only still in use by some police today, they have also taken place right under the noses of journalists in the local and national news media. These are people who profess to be a fourth estate that keeps the bastards honest. In reality, only a handful of journalists have been aware of what has been going on—Anthony Dowsley of the Herald Sun and John Silvester of the Age are the stand-out exceptions in Victoria—and an even smaller number of media practitioners have had the guts to expose it.
Instead, journalist clubs and unions have heaped awards on those who have been ignorant of this form of police corruption and, as a result, have been led by the nose to create the kind of public atmosphere the police want.
With our mainstream news media such an appalling failure today, the cause of freedom and justice has lost a once reliable partner. As the Pell case showed, that cause is now dependent on a few wise heads in the judiciary who still have a lot of very smelly cans to open.