ICAC’s been getting plenty of headlines of late over dodgy Liberal Party donor scams and has claimed enough scalps to create the impression it’s doing a good job.
But no amount of courtroom theatrical acclaim can justify its disgraceful, flawed and Ryde inquiry and its abuse of power in connection with it.
The first of a two day hearing kicks off today in an attempt to unravel this abuse of power, and the heavy-handed conclusions that featured in the report ICAC handed down in June last year.
In reality, the ICAC, justice and procedural fairness would have been served so much better if ICAC had abandoned ship the moment it realised the whole thing was a dud.
Former Mayor Ivan Petch is challenging ICAC’s four baffling findings of corrupt conduct, involving matters you’d more likely chatacterise as trivial misdemeanours.
ICAC was excessive in its use of powers, ruthlessly pursuing Petch over non-existent corrupt conduct.
Even worse, it did this in the full knowledge that its two key witnessed against Petch likely had alterior motives as his two fiercest rivals at Ryde Council happened to be his fiercest political rivals on Ryde Council, with likely alterior motives.
ICAC unbelievably asserted from the outset that its public inquiry had nothing to do with the Civic precinct redevelopment plan spat. But those familiar with Ryde Council’s toxic political environment at the time
But its flimsy, dubious and unconvincing evidence would probably have been better dealt with in Ryde Council mediation session than an ICAC hearing room, with millions of taxpayer dollars involved.
“These findings are a mirror image of the original accusations, and it could be suggested that ICAC had already made its decision prior to the hearings,” Cr Petch said in a statement earlier this year.
“The findings completely ignore the submission made by my legal counsel and the evidence provided at the hearing which completely vindicated my actions, motivated entirely by the Public Interest and without any personal gain.
“To suggest such actions of corruption after 37 years of representing the residents honestly and sincerely, totally beggars belief.”
Councillor Petch wants common law to prevail – with proper rules of evidence as opposed to the ICAC’s selective handling of evidence, free of the constraints of rules and accountability – so the truth can be established in the public arena.
ICAC unwittingly became involved in a caustic political spat involving big business interests and a Civic precinct overdevelopment that was eventually stopped, after nearly two years of dysfunction, while Ryde councillors remained split over the issue.
It failed to attract the kind of rolling media coverage and headlines that have featured in ICAC’s more recent efforts.
The two top-rating commercial networks – Seven and Nine – deemed ICAC’s Ryde inquiry report unworthy of a mention when it was handed down on June 30, 2013.
And most media outlets were clearly unimpressed with the trivial and, at times, convoluted nature of the Ryde inquiry, attributing very little coverage to it.
Flicking through the report only reinforces that ICAC’s actions are either desperate or a brazenly arrogant as it strives to justify its existence by doing ‘whatever it takes’ to land some blows on its targets. Even when there’s nothing there.
This is especially the case with its concocted claims against a group of unfairly-targeted serving and former councillors.
In contrast to its stellar work around political donations involving Liberal Party figures, exposing and raising awareness of irregularities in a manner overwhelmingly in the public interest, it has emphatically bungled the political donations issue in Ryde.
Insulated by the public’s blanket endorsement of ICAC’s role in causing Liberal pollie heads to roll, the more complicated, and less interesting Ryde investigation easily avoided public scrutiny of its unsound foundations and many anomalies throughout.
In July 2013, when ICAC publicly announced its Ryde inquiry, it alleged the councillors had receiving undisclosed political donations – despite there being nearly three more months in which to make their disclosures (before the deadline of September 23, 2013).
By the time the report was handed down, ICAC had no doubt realised its bungle, changing its allegations against the five councillors to something different – unlawfully receiving an indirect campaign contribution in excess of the $1,000 threshold.
ICAC claimed they’d breached the threshold in relation to shared newspaper election advertisements.
That’s right readers – the whole case against Ryde’s councillors is underpinned by shared advertising valued at $4,180 – nothing anywhere near the big bucks we’ve seen in the Liberal Party probe.
To make its square peg fit a round hole, ICAC has relied on a very strange and almost certainly flawed interpretation of the value each councillor effectively received from the advertisements.
Rather than dividing the total amount five ways, ICAC defies logic by asserting that “each councillor received the full benefit of the advertising. It promoted the re-election of each councillor”.
ICAC relies on this inexplicable formula in its quest to have the councillors convicted of an offence under s 96E of the EFED Act by showing they somehow exceeded the $1,000 threshold.
The councillors, who actually paid for the ads, are on firm ground in rejecting this ridiculous claim but in any case, each has also disclosed their share of the advertising to the NSW Electoral Commission – despite not necessarily being required to do so.
The devil is certainly in the detail, but the Ryde report almost certainly proves to be underwhelming for anyone who decides to peruse it, especially if they’re expecting Liberal Party donations-like action.
ICAC can claim the dubious honour of relying on the evidence of a lobbyist for its Ryde investigation, contradicting its important work raising awareness of ethical risks posed by lobbyists without proper oversight.
Given that evidence successfully sought to devastate Ivan Petch and also preventing him voting, ICAC can also claim responsibility for elevating Cr Bill Pickering – who served a full term and in 2012 was re-elected in his dual role of lobbyist – to the Mayoralty.
Cr Pickering this year removed himself and staffers at Hugo Halliday Marketing and Public Relations from state and federal lobbyist registers after lobbyists and dodgy political donations connected to the Liberal Party, began hitting the headlines during ICAC’s inquiry.
Among the staff removed from the registry was Nathaniel Smith, a Kogarah Councillor who is the son of former NSW Greg Smith, who had ministerial oversight of ICAC when decisions were made to proceed with the Ryde investigation and public hearing.
According to The NSW Department of Planning’s Lobbyist Contact Register, Cr Pickering last conducted official lobbying activity in April 2014.