The ascension of Nathan Rees to the top job in NSW has inevitably piqued media interest in his role in the discovery of former Minister Milton Orkopoulos’s paedophilia and drug use, and his subsequent conviction and imprisonment. Gillian Sneddon, who was at the centre of the case, has spent recent days fielding inquiries from the Sydney media, suddenly interested again in her treatment at the hands of the NSW Government.
So rapid has been Rees’s rise that it’s only two years since The Australian was misspelling his name in connection with the case.
Rees, like a number of former Government MPs, including Morris Iemma and John Watkins, has been dogged by the question of when he first knew of allegations about Orkopoulos’s behaviour. Rees’s consistent line has been that, despite being the then-Minister’s chief of staff, he knew nothing until everyone found out about Orkopoulos’s secret life in November 2006.
In his answer to Parliament on the question, Rees noted that he left Orkopoulos’s office on Friday 4 August 2006 (Iemma had asked Rees to join his staff). According to Sneddon, it was on the following Monday that Orkopoulos called in police in an effort to address the circulation of a statutory declaration alleging he was a paedophile.
There had been allegations against Orkopoulos in October 2005, made by the victim in the Minister’s office to his staff, including Sneddon. When advised of the claims, Orkopoulos reacted with fury and asked a Lake Macquarie police officer to “warn off” the individual. He then assured Sneddon — whom he had known since the early 1990s when he, Sneddon and his future wife Kathy worked together in the office of Labor MP Don Bowman — that he had spoken to police about the claims. Orkopoulos also told Newcastle MP Bryce Gaudry, with whom Sneddon had raised the allegations, and Legislative Councillor Janice Burnswood that he had referred the matter to the police. Rees was his chief of staff at this point, and there are claims Orkopoulos’s driver was a witness to the “warning off”.
When he learnt of the 2006 statutory declaration, Orkopoulos asked Sneddon to fax a copy of the declaration to then-Police Minister Carl Scully, and asked her to arrange a police interview for him. But the claims in the statutory declaration were never raised in Orkopoulos’s trial. Instead, when police arrived to discuss it with Orkopoulos, he was not available and police instead spoke to Sneddon, who mentioned the 2005 allegations. They would become the basis on which he was charged and convicted.
Orkopoulos relied on deferring suspicion by telling colleagues and staff that he had referred allegations about himself to police. He was also, clearly, adept at keeping his sexual activities and drug use secret. There is no evidence that Rees has misled Parliament in his denials about knowing about allegations relating to Orkopoulos. There is only the fact that Rees’s tenure as chief of staff coincided with the 2005 allegations, which several staff and two MPs knew about, and that he left Orkopoulos’s office only three days before the latter attempted to deal with a statutory declaration about his activities, including by giving it to another Minister.
A number of significant questions remain unanswered about the Iemma Government’s response to Orkopoulos’s crimes. Sneddon has repeatedly claimed, and produced evidence, that when she advised Parliamentary staff in September 2006 that she was assisting a confidential police investigation into Orkopoulos’s activities, that this information was immediately passed on to Orkopoulos. It was at that point that Sneddon was locked out of the MP’s office. No inquiry has ever been undertaken into the behaviour of the Parliamentary staff, which according to Sneddon infuriated NSW Police investigating the politician.
An attempt by the NSW Opposition to establish an inquiry this year into both the behaviour of Parliamentary staff and the subsequent treatment of Sneddon was derailed in June by the Government and Fred Nile and replaced with a general whistleblower inquiry. Submissions to the inquiry closed a fortnight ago.
It won’t get to the bottom of who did and didn’t know about Orkopoulos, or why he was informed of the investigation into him by Parliamentary staff. But of the politicians involved, Rees is the last man standing in the affair. Iemma, Scully, his replacement as Police Minister John Watkins, Gaudry, and Burnswood have all left politics. In the absence of a full inquiry, Rees begins his premiership with serious questions unresolved.