A report released this week reveals a trail of misinformation, secret deals and media manipulation by a ministerial adviser that in part provoked the resignation of Victorian Police Commissioner Simon Overland.
A report released this morning reveals an extraordinary trail of misinformation, secret deals and media manipulation by a ministerial adviser that in part provoked the resignation of Victorian Police Commissioner Simon Overland earlier this year.
The report also reveals that Deputy Commissioner Sir Ken Jones opened himself to serious compromise by cooperating with the adviser, former policeman Tristan Weston, in his attempts to broker a secret deal with the Police Association.
The deal, which was not consummated, would have involved the Police Association agreeing to “go soft” on industrial matters and its criticism of government policies in return for Police Minister Ryan supporting Sir Ken Jones withdrawing his resignation from the Victoria Police.
Jones wrote a letter withdrawing his resignation, and agreed to email it to Weston and Police Association secretary Greg Davies, using Weston’s private email address to keep it secret.
The Office of Police Integrity report, tabled in parliament this morning, reveals a smelly and rotten trail. Its title Crossing the Line refers mostly to Weston who emerges as a “rogue” ministerial adviser. The report describes him as “lacking boundaries”. He may yet face serious criminal charges.
But the title could also refer to the media, the Police Association, Ken Jones, government MPs and ministerial advisers. The report also suggests that the use of the media in the campaign against Overland be drawn to the attention of the federal government’s media inquiry.
The report, relying largely on covertly recorded telephone conversations and on admissions from Weston, reveals how this former Detective Senior Constable, then acting as an adviser in the office of Police Minister Peter Ryan, used a largely compliant media to plant stories, some of them false and most of them seriously skewed, that added to the atmosphere of crisis surrounding Overland in the first half of this year.
Reporters on the end of Weston’s activities included Carly Crawford of the Herald Sun, Dylan Welch of The Age, Stuart Rintoul of The Australian and the Neil Mitchell and his producer, Justin Smith, of 3AW.
The report also claims that this story in The Age, which revealed that the OPI was bugging Weston’s and Ken Jones’ phones, compromised its investigations and made impossible covert gathering of further information about what Jones and Weston were up to.
Overland resigned as Commissioner of Police in June this year after numerous critical media stories, his falling out with Ken Jones, and — the final blow — an Ombudsman’s report critical of his tabling of misleading crime statistics in the lead-up to the state election.
In the lead-up to that report, Weston attempted to orchestrate a Herald Sun attack on the Ombudsman’s office because he feared the report would not be sufficiently critical of Overland. Weston fed the Herald Sun’s Crawford false information concerning the deputy Ombudsman, John Taylor, and Overland. When Ken Jones told Police Association secretary Davies that the story was “baseless and wrong” Weston then tried to persuade Carly Crawford to “pull” that story by offering her “something better” — a story attacking the integrity of a member of the OPI staff.
This story, too, was based on dubious information. To Crawford’s credit, neither of these stories appeared, but other material published by the Herald Sun was false or misleading as a result of briefings by Weston.
Jones emerges from the report as having been prepared to use his relationship with the Police Association to undermine Overland, including by criticising Overland to Police Association secretary Greg Davies, and being prepared to engage in secret deals.
Weston, the report says, “lacked boundaries” and conducted his campaign against Overland on “the thinnest of evidence heavily overlaid with rumour, speculation and prejudice”, the report says.
“It was not a balanced view. It was apparently not the Ministers view nor Mr Hindmarsh’s view. It was, nonetheless, a view Mr Weston was only too willing to share.”
Weston was part of the minister’s office while on leave from the police force. The report finds that he had already taken a fix against Overland before his appointment. His activities seem to have been conducted without the knowledge of Ryan or Hindmarsh, although there are indications that Weston received sympathetic hearings and some co-operation in his attempts to undermine the Ombudsman’s report from a ministerial adviser, Paul Denham (a former member of Victoria Police), in the office of the Attorney-General, Robert Clark.
Weston misled Denham, pretending that the Herald Sun’s Carly Crawford had approached him with the story, when in fact Weston had planted it with Crawford. In a telephone call bugged by the OPI, Denham told Weston that the Ombudsman was “very much on side” and that the approach should be to “tip the acid on them personally [meaning Overland and Deputy Ombudsman John Taylor] rather than, you know, the Ombudsman himself.”
Also implicated in Weston’s activities is Bill Tilley MP, a former member of the Victoria Police and Parliamentary Secretary for Police and Emergency Services. Tilley emerges as an active campaigner against Overland, communicating with Weston and the Police Association.
Weston was not, the OPI report says, the originator nor the sole member of the campaign against Overland. However his activities “almost certainly contributed to the course of events that led to the Chief Commissioner’s resignation. In the process, management of Victoria Police was undermined and public confidence in it diminished.”
In his interviews with the OPI Weston said that he cultivated the Police Association because of the political power it wielded. In Weston’s view the association was responsible for the downfall of the Kennett government, and the election of the Bracks government.
The report reveals that Police Association Secretary Davies and Ken Jones socialised together, that Jones openly criticised Overland to Davies, and that as Deputy Commissioner, Jones joined the Police Association but asked for this fact to be kept private because Overland would not approve.
Jones resigned from the force in October 2010 after falling out with Overland. The resignation was publicly announced on May 2 this year.
The report reveals that in the following days Weston tried to persuade Jones to withdraw his resignation. Jones told Weston he was prepared to do so if the minister supported his return to the force.
Weston was unsuccessful in getting the minister involved, with Ryan saying he wanted to stay out of the battle between Jones and Overland, and that the resignation was a matter for Jones.
This did not stop Weston from trying to broker a deal. In a call bugged by the OPI, Weston told Jones he would discuss the withdrawal with the Police Association’s Greg Davies.
Issues on which the Police Association was said to be prepared to go soft included its criticism of government moves to put Protected Services Officers at railway stations, and the enterprise bargaining negotiations then under way. (Earlier this week, it was announced that those negotiations had resulted in a generous pay deal, in which the Baillieu government almost doubled its offer.
Jones on May 9 typed a letter withdrawing his resignation and emailed it to Davies and Weston, using Weston’s private email address. In his response to the OPI, Jones stated that he believed at all times that Weston was acting on behalf of the government, which was “reaching out” to him. Davies, meanwhile, denied to the OPI that there had ever been a deal.
Minister Ryan told the OPI it was never his intention to oust Overland, and that he had had a good relationship with him. Ryan claimed he was never told that Jones intended to withdraw his resignation.
In any case, the deal — if indeed it ever existed outside Weston and Jones’ heads — foundered, with Jones apparently thinking better of it and asking that his letter withdrawing his resignation not be given to the minister. However, this was not before Weston contacted the Neil Mitchell program on 3AW and Geoff Wilkinson of the Herald Sun in the week of May 6 urging them to cover the withdrawal of Sir Ken’s resignation.
Weston regularly contacted journalists, including Smith and Mitchell at 3AW, and made clear his criticisms of Overland. It seems that at least some of these journalists assumed he was speaking with the knowledge of the minister, and he did not disabuse them.
Particularly close was Weston’s relationship with Herald Sun reporter Carly Crawford. Weston told the OPI in his evidence that there was an attitude at the Herald Sun that Overland was “either corrupt or inept or a combination of both”.
Crawford was examined by the OPI, and denied holding such views, though she conceded she might have allowed Weston to form the impression that was her opinion so he would give her more information. Crawford declined to discuss her dealings with Weston under her ethical obligations to her sources.
The articles published by Crawford include this one about a police officer who took his own life after being subject to dismissal proceedings over p-rnography. The article suggested that Overland had acted against legal advice. This was based on information provided by Weston, which he had heard in a rumour, and had not checked. The rumour was not true.
The next article was this one by Mark Buttler and Anne Wright on May 5, which asserted that big bonuses were paid to police public servants although the payroll was over budget. Weston spoke to Buttler for the article, telling him off the record that it was one of the worst cases of mismanagement in Victoria Police and that there had been a serious cover up. He did this without the minister’s knowledge.
Another Crawford story on May 6 was about the scrapping of a forensic information system. (This article is apparently no longer on the Herald Sun website). It was based on a briefing from Weston, acting on information he had received from a friend, which he did not check. The story was inaccurate. The project was never going to be scrapped, and was not over budget. It will go live in the near future, according to the OPI report.
A few days later there was another Weston inspired story about Overland’s future being considered in cabinet, after he had directed Jones to take leave. The article quoted government sources about a conversation between Overland and Sir Ken Jones. Weston was a source.
Then, on May 18, as the atmosphere surrounding Overland and Jones reached white-hot levels, there was this article based on a confidential briefing document, shown by Weston to Crawford, concerning police discipline changes sought by Victoria Police, which were not being adopted by the government. The article suggested that Overland was at loggerheads with the government — an impression promoted by Weston. Other articles included this one from The Age’s Dylan Welch, which added to the atmosphere surrounding Overland.
The Australian was also involved, with Stuart Rintoul, suggesting that a key executive had left due to conflict with Overland, when this wasn’t true. The evidence gathered by the OPI suggests that this story was planted by Davies, with Weston’s approval. In fact, the executive’s departure had nothing to do with conflict with Overland, the OPI report says.
Other stories sourced at least in part to Weston included this one on May 24, suggesting design flaws about a firearm holster and ballistic bests, and this one, which relied on rumours relayed to Crawford by Weston, that Overland had not been the preferred candidate for chief commissioner.
But perhaps the most disturbing episode concerned Weston’s activities in the lead-up to the release of the Ombudsman’s report on crime statistics, which was the immediate cause of Overland’s resignation. Weston was concerned that the report, which was being done by Deputy Ombudsman John Taylor, would not be sufficiently critical of Overland. He tried to plant a story with Crawford that Taylor had previously been associated with Overland when Taylor was working for the Commonwealth Ombudsman and Overland was with the Australian Federal Police.
The allegation was that Taylor had inadequately investigated a complaint against the AFP and that Overland had attempted to interfere in the investigation. This was based on allegations made to Weston by a former NSW police office, now an academic, whom Weston admitted had an axe to grind, and had previously been charged with making a false allegation. Weston now concedes, the OPI report says, that there is no evidence of a connection between Overland and Taylor.
Crawford was apparently initially keen on the story, recruiting Weston to help her do her research. However, then Weston was contacted by the Police Association’s Greg Davies, who told him to “go cold” on the Taylor story. Davies told the OPI he wanted to kill the story because he had discussed it with Ken Jones and been told it was “completely baseless and wrong”.
Weston then contacted Crawford and asked her to “wait a bit” on the story and that he would give her something better. He gave her information provided to him by the same NSW former policeman and academic making allegations against a former AFP member now employed by the OPI. The allegations were made by people “known to police” and of doubtful credibility. To Crawford’s credit, neither the Taylor Overland story nor the one concerning the OPI were published.
The OPI report finds that Weston’s conduct amounts to serious misconduct and improper conduct, and that he may face criminal charges — although much of the evidence gathered against him during the OPI inquiry would not be admissible in court and this might make it difficult to successfully prosecute.
Sir Ken Jones, the report said, had behaved “in a manner wholly inconsistent with the professional and ethical standards to be expected of a Deputy Commissioner of Police” and had placed himself in a position of potential future compromise through his secret arrangement that might have left him in the debt of the Police Association.
The OPI report found that Weston’s appointment as a ministerial adviser while being a serving police officer amounted to an irreconcilable conflict of interest. It recommends that if serving police officers are appointed as ministerial advisers, they should be only on a liaison basis and not as ministerial officers. They should report to the Victoria Police management structure, and not to a minister.