‘I’ve constantly flagged this’: ICAC’s swipe at Attorney-General

Outgoing state anti-corruption chief Ann Vanstone KC has disputed claims from Attorney-General Kyam Maher that the government has discretion over whether MP Fraser Ellis can bill taxpayers for legal fees in a case which saw him found guilty of deception.

Jul 11, 2024, updated Jul 11, 2024
Independent Commissioner Against Corruption Ann Vanstone KC and Attorney-General Kyam Maher. Photos: Tony Lewis/InDaily

Independent Commissioner Against Corruption Ann Vanstone KC and Attorney-General Kyam Maher. Photos: Tony Lewis/InDaily

Ellis, a former Liberal turned Independent, was last week found guilty on four counts of deception over his use of the country members’ allowance in a legal case that dragged on for more than three years.

The conclusion of the case has prompted questions as to whether Ellis will apply for taxpayers to reimburse his legal fees.

Ellis could be eligible to do so under changes to the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) Act which passed parliament swiftly and unanimously in 2021.

The changes curbed the powers of the ICAC and this week prompted Commissioner Ann Vanstone KC to resign in frustration.

But they also created a provision where any member of parliament, minister, government employee or board appointee can have “reasonable” legal costs reimbursed if they have not been convicted of an indictable offence that constitutes corruption in public administration.

The clause means an MP investigated by ICAC for theft, dishonestly dealing with documents, or, in Ellis’ case, deception, is entitled to have their legal fees reimbursed regardless of whether they are convicted.

The provision in the amended ICAC Act regarding legal cost reimbursement.

The Malinauskas Government has repeatedly said it will take legal advice on whether Ellis is eligible to be reimbursed.

Attorney-General Kyam Maher said on Wednesday: “We will assess any application that comes in for reimbursement for legal fees based on the particulars of those circumstances.”

“In the (Ellis) matter… there’s still a way to go in terms of how that exactly will end up. Sentencing hasn’t occurred, but they will be assessed on the exact details,” he told ABC Radio Adelaide.

Asked if it was up to the government to decide whether Ellis could be reimbursed, Maher said: “It will go in, and the lawyers of the government will have a look at it and make decisions.”

But Vanstone disputed the Attorney-General’s opinion, saying whether or not Ellis is reimbursed is “not a matter of the Attorney’s discretion”.

“If we investigate a person and they end up being found guilty of an offence… but not one of those very few corruption offences, then they’re entitled to have their legal fees repaid,” she told ABC Radio Adelaide today.

“That’s the fact of it. They are entitled to it.

“Now that’s not a matter of the Attorney’s discretion, it’s not down to some Crown Solicitor’s Office solicitor – that is an entitlement under the Act.

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“Deception used to be a corruption offence, but is no longer, so… you would get your fees back.”

Asked on radio: “So when the Attorney-General says, ‘oh we’ll look into it’”, Vanstone replied: “It’s just wrong.”

“And again, he hasn’t been listening if he really thinks that,” Vanstone said.

“I’ve been saying this for three, almost four years.

“I said this to him and the then-leader of the Opposition, Mr Malinauskas, before the amendments (to the ICAC Act) went through.

“I’ve flagged this, and I’ve constantly flagged this.”

InDaily contacted the Attorney-General’s office for a response to Vanstone’s comments. A spokesperson referred us back to Maher’s comments on radio yesterday.

Earlier, Vanstone said she got the “impression” the Attorney-General was “not interested” in the “integrity scheme and to what extent it’s working”.

Maher, asked yesterday whether Vanstone’s concerns had been ignored, said: “We are always happy to hear a very wide range of views.”

“Parts of the changes that were made have only been in operation for less than two years. We don’t think that’s enough time to fully assess how those changes have worked.”

Vanstone’s abrupt resignation on Tuesday triggered a wave of political reactions, with the Liberal Party, Greens and SA-Best MP Connie Bonaros all indicating they are open to changing the ICAC legislation they passed in 2021.

One Nation MLC Sarah Game, who was not in parliament when the changes were passed, also said her office is “looking at legislation to restore ICAC’s powers to hold public servants fully accountable”.

The Malinauskas Government has also said it is “not opposed to making sensible changes” but wants more time to “fully assess” the impact of the 2021 reforms.

But Independent MP Frank Pangallo, the architect of the ICAC reforms and one of the anti-corruption watchdog’s sharpest critics, said on Wednesday he made “no apologies for introducing the legislation – it had to be done”.

Topics: ICAC
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