Watchdog hobbled by lack of staff

EXCLUSIVE

AUSTRALIA'S corruption watchdog is borrowing staff and equipment from the agencies it oversees to run major probes, with the number of customs officers being investigated greater than its entire workforce.

Labor MP Melissa Parke and former Commonwealth ombudsman Allan Asher are concerned about the resourcing of the Australian Commission for Law Enforcement Integrity and have called on the federal government to consider a broad-based national anti-corruption body.

Their comments come as Fairfax Media can also reveal:

■A woman who got a customs job after a Sydney crime boss's wife gave her a character reference has been suspended after allegedly tipping off the crime figure that police knew of his plans to flee Australia on a false passport.

■The federal police clashed with customs late last year over its initial failure to search a shipping container later found to contain drugs worth $230 million.

■The federal government was warned in a classified 2010 report of ''weaknesses and gaps in aviation security'' two years before systemic customs corruption at Sydney airport exposed continuing flaws in airport security.

ACLEI has about 30 staff, of whom seven are investigators, and a $6 million budget to oversee the nation's 12,700 customs, federal police and Australian Crime Commission officers.

A small number of officers working with ACLEI are concerned about the agency's lack of resources and it having to rely on surveillance operatives, phone-tapping infrastructure, investigators and analysts from other agencies (including the federal police, the commission and customs) to run major probes.

Officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said this presented a conflict of interest because ACLEI was responsible for investigating these agencies.

A similar concern prompted integrity commissioner Philip Moss to commission a review by former top public servant Jeff Lamond in May 2011. ACLEI has refused to release the Lamond report but says all its findings have been addressed.

ACLEI will get five extra staff later this year as its jurisdiction expands to cover three more agencies - the quarantine service, money-laundering agency Austrac and criminal records agency Crimtrac - and it continues to expand a major inquiry into corruption at the nation's wharves and airports.

The police watchdogs in Victoria and New South Wales, which have a far broader remit than ACLEI, have budgets of around $20 million.

Last month, ACLEI chief Philip Moss told a parliamentary committee: "I am very reliant on the goodwill and co-operativeness [sic] of the heads of agencies to give me stuff, to assist. [They] do not hold back once I ask, and that is one of the strengths of our relationship and our operation.''

He also said ''a lot of the resourcing is coming from elsewhere'' to run ACLEI's border corruption probe, while noting that using surveillance operatives from the crime commission was preferable to having his own team, who could fall ''idle'' and get into ''mischief.''

In a statement, ACLEI said it carefully managed all potential conflicts of interest in using staff from the agencies it oversees and that its resourcing was consistent with two government reviews and the views of ACLEI's parliamentary committee.

But the chair of that committee, Melissa Parke, said she supported the view of ACLEI's first boss, former Commonwealth ombudsman John McMillan, who said it would need at least 50 staff.

Ms Parke said: ''ACLEI has performed very well with the resources at its disposal to date but it is logical to say ACLEI will perform best if it is resourced adequately to carry out its investigative and oversight roles in a timely way and without having to 'borrow' from other organisations to any great degree, especially where those organisations are the ones subject to ACLEI's oversight.''

She also said there was ''good reason to consider introducing a more wide-ranging ethics and oversight body to cover all of the Commonwealth public sector''.

Her calls were backed by the chairman of Transparency International, Roger Gyles, who accused the government of stalling important national anti-corruption reforms and neglecting ACLEI, and former commonwealth ombudsman Allan Asher.

''The last thing they [the federal government] want is an effective body to investigate corruption either among the public service or MPs,'' Mr Asher said, while describing ACLEI as ''tiny'' and unable to properly investigate corruption across federal agencies.

Home Affairs Minister Jason Clare said he worked closely with Mr Moss on resourcing and that the secondment of officials from other agencies was ACLEI's preference. Mr Clare said ACLEI's budget had increased each year for the past six years and was recently doubled to deal with the customs corruption inquiry.

''No level of government is immune from corruption. … If you hunt for corruption you will find it, and we are hunting,'' he said.

As ACLEI analyses corruption and misconduct allegations involving more than 30 customs officers - including many from Sydney Airport - to inform a customs' new anti-corruption reform panel, Fairfax has uncovered details of classified warnings about aviation security holes sent to the federal government more than two years ago.

A freedom of information search has revealed that the 2010 Layers of Aviation Security report identified ''weaknesses and gaps in aviation security and the risks that they pose as well as the potential areas for improvement and enhancement of security measures''.

A spokesman for the Department of Transport and Infrastructure said the government had allocated $180 million to improve aviation security since 2009 and had introduced measures on passenger screening and unaccompanied baggage.

nmckenzie@fairfaxmedia.com.au

rbaker@fairfaxmedia.com.au

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