John Lawler runs an organisation with extraordinary powers, but he’s not an extraordinarily powerful man. Lawler’s critics say the silver-haired Australian Federal Police veteran has fallen short of expectations since taking the reins at the Australian Crime Commission two and a half years ago.
“John Lawler does some good things but he’s part of what I regard as the white-shirt brigade,” says investigative journalist Bob Bottom, who is widely regarded as one of Australia’s leading authorities on organised crime. “The ACC has been reduced to an intelligence agency, not an investigating agency. That’s not acceptable. I’m very critical of how it’s going at the moment.”
The ACC — created in 2002 to tackle “nationally significant” crimes such as terrorism, money laundering and drug trafficking — is regularly labelled the country’s most powerful crime-fighting agency. Unlike traditional police officers, its agents can force witnesses to give evidence and ban them from revealing to anyone but their lawyer that they were questioned.
“If your client is in front of the ACC, you are shit scared,” said Australian Lawyers Alliance president Greg Barns.
But many believe the crims aren’t nearly scared enough.
A former senior AFP officer, who asked not to be named, said: “Lawler has overseen a decline in the commission’s capabilities when it is struggling for resources and not well regarded by other law-enforcement agencies. It’s had a notable lack of success over recent years in terms of arrests.”
Bob Bottom — who has been involved in 18 official inquiries into organised crime — says the downgrading of the ACC began before Lawler took over but has accelerated under his leadership.
The commission charged only 102 people last year, down from 184 in 2008-2009 and 201 the year before. And despite rebranding itself last year as a “criminal intelligence agency” rather than as a “criminal intelligence and investigation agency”, there’s no hard evidence that the ACC’s intelligence performance has improved. The commission’s latest annual report leaves out the crucial figure of how many “intelligence disseminations” it delivered to its partner agencies. Bob Bottom’s analysis of the report puts the figure at about 4000, down 33% on the year before.
“I think it [the ACC] has been a failure,” former NSW police detective Tim Priest told The Power Index. “You don’t hear about what they do — and if they were having successes, you’d know because they’d be blowing their trumpet. They’re not nearly as successful as they should be.”
John Lawler has previously defended his focus on intelligence gathering, saying that the ACC plays a crucial role in helping state police and the AFP work together to make arrests.
There have been some big successes under his watch — most notably Operation Hoffman, one of the biggest investigations into organised crime in Australian history. The operation — led by the ACC in co-operation with NSW police, the AFP and anti-money-laundering agency Austrac — uncovered connections between bikie gangs, Chinese triads and corrupt maritime officials, and led to major ecstasy, heroin and crystal methamphetamine busts last year.