ICAC head claims new SA laws ‘effectively gagged me’

South Australia’s anti-corruption chief has issued a damning critique of new state laws that “effectively gagged me” in responding to “untruths and misinformation” about her organisation and led to staff quitting.

Oct 18, 2023, updated Oct 18, 2023
Ann Vanstone. Photo: Tony Lewis/InDaily

Ann Vanstone. Photo: Tony Lewis/InDaily

Commissioner Ann Vanstone KC said in the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) annual report tabled in State Parliament yesterday that “ill-informed criticism” of the agency “only serves corrupt actors”.

The report also said that removing some of ICAC’s powers under new laws has undermined confidence in the organisation and led to staff leaving.

“The 2021 legislative changes have effectively gagged me in terms of addressing the untruths and misinformation uttered about us,” Vanstone said, referring to changes to the Independent Commission Against Corruption Act 2012.

According to the ICAC website, the law previously meant Vanstone could “make a public statement in relation to a particular matter if she was satisfied it was appropriate to do so, and having regard to a number of considerations”.

Under the new rules “The circumstances in which the commission may make a public statement are limited.  In many cases, the commission cannot make a public statement in relation to an investigation.”

ICAC has come under intense scrutiny in the past year over the aborted prosecution of ex-Renewal SA boss John Hanlon and Vanstone has raised concerns about comments aired by politicians about the failed case.

In June 2021, the Adelaide Magistrates Court threw out allegations that Hanlon had spent $15,000 of taxpayers funds on personal interstate and overseas trips.

A review of the investigation and prosecution by Inspector Phillip Strickland SC released in June found it was “appropriate and reasonable” but his inquiry “revealed a number of failures by ICAC in the conduct of its investigation into Mr Hanlon”.

At the time, Vanstone said the downfall of the Hanlon case and the resultant damage to ICAC’s reputation were “regrettable” – but stressed they did not justify some of the criticisms levelled against it.

The annual report highlighted a fall in ICAC staff numbers from 53 to 43 during the reporting period.

“In October 2021, major changes to our legislation took effect. Our jurisdiction was severely reduced and some of our powers were removed,” the report said.

“This undermined confidence in the commission and led to a number of staff leaving. That effect was not immediate; rather it was gradual and it continued into the reporting period.

“Consistent undermining of some of the commission’s work has a detrimental effect on staff morale and their enjoyment of their work.”

In the annual report, Vanstone said that following the abandonment of the Hanlon prosecution by the Director of Public Prosecutions, she initiated a thorough review of the investigation and the relevant aspects of the court proceedings.

“Between November 2022 and early February 2022, with the help of my senior executives, I identified several weaknesses and process errors relating to that matter,” she said.

“I promptly responded to those by implementing new mandatory procedures and training across the organisation.”

Her report acknowledged the importance of the commission not being “immune from a vigilant eye” but said “integrity agencies are an essential adjunct to a well-functioning democracy”.

“As has been clearly demonstrated this year, the commission is not, and should not, be immune from a vigilant eye,” Vanstone said.

InDaily in your inbox. The best local news every workday at lunch time.
By signing up, you agree to our User Agreement andPrivacy Policy & Cookie Statement. This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.

“Accordingly, well informed criticism will always be welcome. What is not welcome is unwarranted and ill-informed criticism that seeks to undermine that confidence.

“Criticism of this sort only serves corrupt actors. The 2021 legislative changes have effectively gagged me in terms of addressing the untruths and misinformation uttered about us.”

In the past year, ICAC conducted 42 investigations, three matters were referred to SA Police for further investigation and potential prosecution and three matters were referred to a public authority for further investigation and potential disciplinary action.

The tabled Integrity State report showed ICAC issued recommendations surrounding several investigations, including allegations about a senior government minister using his position to arrange a lucrative contact between an associate and the state government.

“The allegations centred on two unsolicited proposals made by the associate to the minister which were then forwarded to the chief executive of the minister’s department. No evidence of corruption was found,” it said.

However, ICAC issued recommendations to the Department of Premier and Cabinet including reviewing and updating procedures.

“The commission also published a report on this matter that highlighted the corruption risks of political connections being exploited for commercial gain,” the Integrity State report said.

ICAC also investigated allegations that the Campbelltown City Council’s decision to terminate an existing contract and engage a different supplier was improperly influenced by a conflict of interest. The allegations were not substantiated.

“However, the investigation uncovered vulnerabilities in the council’s assessment of unsolicited proposals and the use of contract extensions,” the report said.

Another allegation that a public officer responsible for procurement in the Country Fire Service had improperly directed a large volume of work to a local business was also investigated by ICAC.

“The evidence obtained during that investigation did not show corruption. However, it was evident that the public officer did not disclose their relationship with the business owner,” it said.

The commission investigated allegations that an SA Housing Authority employee improperly used confidential information to purchase authority properties to benefit a private renovation business. The allegations were not substantiated.

However, investigators established that the employee had not declared secondary employment or business interests to the authority, contrary to the Code of Ethics for the South Australian Public Sector, the report said.

The commission investigated allegations that a staff member at the Courts Administration Authority improperly accessed confidential information and disseminated the information to a personal associate. The information provided was not sufficient to progress the investigation.

However, the commission noted these were not the first allegations relating to the misuse of official information in the authority and issued recommendations to review its practices, policies and procedures.

“The commission’s recommendations indicate there are opportunities for many public authorities to improve their practices, policies and procedures to mitigate corruption risks,” the report said.

“Corrupt actors are at pains to mask their activities and public authorities may not always be aware of their vulnerability.”

Local News Matters
Copyright © 2024 InDaily.
All rights reserved.