John White is a very lucky man. Today, the former Tasmanian ALP minister avoided getting a conviction for his role in the Tasmanian Compliance Corporation (TCC) affair. But should Mr White have got off so lightly?

First some background for the non-Tasmanian readers. John White is a prominent ALP identity in Tasmania, and a few years ago he struck gold. White established a company with former Queensland government ALP minister Glen Milliner, which took over responsibility from the Tasmanian government for registration and accreditation of builders in Tasmania.

The business, called the Tasmanian Compliance Corporation, turned out to be a licence to print money for White and his Milliner. The liquidator of the TCC says that since 2004 White and Milliner made more than $900,000 in directors’ fees between them. No wonder then that on the eve of the 2006 Tasmanian state election White was keen to ensure that his company’s cosy monopoly arrangement continued after the election.

He lobbied the responsible minister, Deputy Premier Bryan Green, and that’s where it came unstuck. White got Green to sign an agreement which granted TCC a further monopoly. This was in contravention of the Building Act, and as Chief Justice Underwood said today, “subverted the will of the parliament”.

White was charged, along with Green, with interfering with an executive officer. A charge which carries what seems a staggeringly tough maximum of 21 years imprisonment Green is still before the courts – his first trial which finished two weeks ago, ended with a hung jury. (No decision has been made by the DPP Tim Ellis as to a retrial.) But White decided to cut a deal and plead guilty.

His barrister argued last week that this was an appropriate case for no conviction to be recorded against his client. Ellis actually agreed with this submission – a stance which had he Chief Justice asking this morning, why did the DPP bother to charge White at all?

Today White has got his way. He is a free man, subject only to a good behaviour bond and is free to go about his business. Not only that, but because of a deal struck with the liquidator, White gets his legal fees paid because he didn’t get a conviction!

Chief Justice Underwood accepted that because White says that he relied on legal advice and would never have agreed to sign the agreement if he had known it was illegal, his culpability is low.

There will be many in the community who will not see Mr White’s good fortune in the same way. Every day individuals receive convictions for offences when their culpability has been similarly low. Recently, a lawyer in Hobart received a conviction and stinging $15,000 fine for allegedly seeking to claim a first home owner’s grant when she wasn’t eligible to do so. She withdrew the form and never actually received the money. And then there are the hardship cases of minor social security fraud, involving small amounts of money, where individuals receive convictions and sometimes jail. And in Tasmania well meaning anti-forestry protestors cop convictions even though their actions are often merely a stepping over the boundary of freedom of speech.

But if Mr White is a lucky, The Hobart Mercury is not so. Chief Justice Underwood says he has formed a tentative view that the paper committed contempt of court last week by publishing details of the deal concerning the payment of White’s legal fees. But was it contempt?

There was no jury in Mr White’s case and Chief Justice Underwood made the point last week that he took no notice of what was written in the article. And some would say The Mercury were the good guys in any event, because White hadn’t bothered to tell his lawyers about the deal, and they had to rush back into court after Mr White’s plea had been heard to tell the Chief Justice all about it.

Given the high profile of this case and the fact that it involves the Tasmanian Government, certain ALP identities and large sums of taxpayers’ money, this is a case where the DPP and defence ought to make public any documents relating to a plea agreement between the parties.

Greg Barns writes a weekly column for the Hobart Mercury.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey