This week in the District Court of Victoria a former mayor of Whitehorse City Council, George Droutsas, stood trial on four counts of procuring false documents and another four of using those false documents in his 2005 bid for re-election.
Once a rising star of the Labor Right’s Unity faction, Droutsas was accused of duping four friends into signing up as candidates in the 2005 council poll in order to garner their preferences by deceiving them into nominating and standing them without intent to serve if elected. All of which, as it turns out, wasn’t worth a pinch of the proverbial — Judge Mark Taft threw the case out this morning without Droutsas having to utter a single word in his own defence.
No doubt it made a good headline: ‘Labor Mayor in Vote Rort Scandal’. But it made for a woeful case.
In the interests of full and frank disclosure, this writer should mention that from time to time over the last three or four years he’s known, drank with and once long ago briefly worked alongside the former mayor. For his sins the writer also sat through three days of the trial’s committal phase, which saw 30 of the original charges in the matter thrown out or dropped. But for all that, how this case even made it to court remains a bloody mystery.
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The prosecution, it has to be said, faced an uphill battle. It’s a strange sight to see tertiary-qualified, apparently mentally functional adults claim to not understand words like ‘candidate’, ‘preference’ and ‘ward’. It’s an even stranger sight to see the same adults testify on oath to signing numerous electoral forms without supposedly ever once reading them, asking their purpose or bothering to follow them up. One could be forgiven for thinking that if Droutsas really had been bent on fraud, he might have been better advised to bandy about land titles rather than two-bit council nominations.
The prosecution also had to contend with a cold, hard fact of timing: between four days and a week after the initial nomination forms were submitted, the candidates in question all signed another round of preference allocation forms. In the intervening days they had been rung by journalists, ratepayers’ groups and residents’ committees seeking their views on local issues. Yet the prosecution tried to convince a jury that despite signing their own preference forms after being told they were candidates … still did not know they were candidates.
Like I said before, all a bit of a bloody mystery.
Still further complicating the issue is that none of Droutsas’ alleged victims made any complaints at the time of the 2005 election, or reported the alleged fraud to the Council, the Victorian Electoral Commission or to the local or state media. To be sure, once allegations of dummy candidates had been raised by the mayor’s enemies on Council there were no shortage of complainants — even if they had by then received and banked their returned deposits from the VEC — but there were none during the campaign and polling period itself.
In many ways, Droutsas fits a certain stereotype of a Labor young turk: ambitious, charming, a bit too slick and perhaps for some people a bit too Greek to be completely pure. And local councils have a reputation for being something of a cesspool, deserved or not.
But given that all the prosecution witnesses admitted to signing their own names on their own forms next to the bit that says ‘candidate’, given they had their photos taken and the statements published and their deposits returned and cashed, given they made no complaints at the time, given one of the prosecution’s witnesses did not deny telling the then CEO, “George [Droutsas] is f-ked, I’m going to get him” … how in the hell did any of this ever get to court?
Once there, these star witnesses contradicted themselves, potentially admitted to obtaining money from the Electoral Commission under false pretences and developed Alan Bond-like amnesia under the slightest questioning. If it hadn’t been so serious it would’ve all been hilarious.
Poor old OPP director Jeremy Rapke had a bad enough week as it is, so it might be best to draw the curtain of mercy over his office’s judgement in this case. But it should be pointed out that if he wasn’t aware of the impact of unsubstantiated allegations about public figures before, he is now. Droutsas spent his life savings and more besides defending himself, not to mention being front and centre in The Age, the Herald Sun and the nightly television news. All at taxpayers’ expense and all for nothing.
In a world of ever-increasing media exposure, the role and judgement of institutions like the OPP — including ombudsmen, anti-corruption bodies and parliament itself — may itself require serious scrutiny and revision. A ‘not guilty’ verdict can hardly be considered compensation for the public and financial costs of a defence against spurious or vexatious accusations, and that goes double for vote-dependent politicians.
Droutsas might only be an ex-mayor, and his trial might now be over, but in a free and fair society today’s result would be the beginning of a much broader debate about justice, the media and the right of all of us to be innocent, legally and publicly, until proven guilty.
*Luke Walladge is a contributing editor for www.wangle.com.au. He is a writer, commentator and former Labor staffer and union official in WA.