ANALYSIS: As recently as last week, Brett Dixon, one of the main players in the ICAC’s massive Turf Club grandstand corruption report, was privately realising that his legal challenge against adverse findings made into his conduct was appearing doomed to fail.
Although publicly buoyed by his former Turf Club board colleague Damien Moriarty’s partial victory in the Supreme Court, that found he was not afforded procedural fairness (and let’s make this clear: not that misconduct did not transpire), the real issue Dixon was interested in, in Moriarty’s legal challenge, was the argument that the ICAC had no legal right to publish the public report.
Judge Judith Kelly flatly rejected that argument on the grounds that the report was “apt to fulfil” the purpose of providing information about the outcome of a referral to the ICAC.
Dixon’s now discontinued case centred around that flawed argument. That and the fact his feelings were hurt real bad by the previous anti-corruption commissioner Ken Fleming. He knew he was likely to lose his judicial review.
But this is the Northern Territory after all, and a man found to have engaged in “corrupt conduct” with apparently no hope one day, can see his fortunes dramatically change overnight due to the incompetence of a single public servant.
In this case, that public servant was the Independent Commissioner Against Corruption Michael Riches.
Following the Moriarty decision, Riches had removed the grandstand report from the OICAC’s website, presumably to remove certain parts about Moriarty, who was not a big player in the whole scandal but who the court found was not provided “procedural fairness”.
However, we now know this was done to broker a backroom deal with Dixon’s lawyers to have the other three judicial reviews pending trial dropped, concerning Dixon, his business partner Matthew Moss and the Turf Club itself.
It appears Riches is not so much concerned about doing what is right, rather than doing what’s right for him.
In his statement explaining the “decision” not to republish – or pursue any aspects of – the corruption report in more than a year, Riches said the discontinuation of the Supreme Court challenges was the important issue because they “have been an unfortunate distraction to the important work of my office”.
Let’s make this point crystal clear: the corrupt practices that surrounded the awarding of $12 million of taxpayer money is not a “distraction” – it’s the main function of his job to investigate.
How nobody has been held accountable for this a year later is mind-boggling and an affront to everything the Office of the ICAC ought to stand for.
In this case, there was an investigation completed by his predecessor, in the form of a published public report outlining the misconduct and corruption and then, unsurprisingly, the legal challenges started by people angry their dealings were exposed, which they claimed was unfair.
However, instead of defending the corruption report, or continuing to investigate the corruption it appeared to expose, Riches instead made a deal with Dixon’s lawyers last week to remove the report completely from his website, with the clear message that everyone should just move on.
And that is where things became messy.
Despite being given multiple opportunities by the NT Independent over the past six days, Riches cannot explain what removing the report actually achieves outside of ridding him personally of a “distraction”.
More importantly, he refuses to say what becomes of its damning findings that the grant process involved “corruption, misconduct, breaches of public trust and mismanagement of public resources”, implicating senior public servants, local businessmen and Darwin Turf Club members.
The court did not find any of that to be untrue.
As the Rule of Law Institute of Australia’s vice president Chris Merritt pointed out on ABC Radio this week, why is an agency of the NT Government making deals with parties about the contents of corruption reports, as though it’s simply a civil litigation matter between two parties?
There is no reasonable answer to this question at this point. Not one that maintains the integrity of the Office of the ICAC. This was done by Riches, for Riches, with taxpayer cash used to hire lawyers for appearing to find ways not to examine the allegations in the report.
Whose interests did he weigh before making that backroom deal? It surely was not the public’s interest.
Michael Riches needs to immediately release the terms of all those deals or settlements or whatever he calls them that he brokered with the three parties who have now dropped their lawsuits.
This is taxpayer money he’s been dealing with and apparently using for his personal convenience with no regard to what is in the public’s interest.
That smells an awful lot like misconduct to us.
Less than a month after starting in the role, Riches was forced to issue a public statement because the NT News was – and this is true – running a public campaign to have the corruption findings in the grandstand report quashed and covered up because they and their friends had been implicated.
In the statement, he said that the future of his office was dependent on public confidence.
“There are a great many opportunities that I can already identify which I hope will have a positive influence on public integrity,” he said. “But as I have already said, there is little prospect of having that positive influence unless this office is trusted.
“There is a lot of work to be done. But I am committed to building upon what has already been achieved and for this office to be trusted for its integrity, expertise, professionalism, fairness and willingness to engage with other agencies and to investigate without fear or favour.”
That trust is now lost until Riches offers the public an explanation for spending their money to bury a corruption report and arranging undisclosed backroom deals with those accused of corruption.
Not only has he failed to produce a single public report in more than a year in the job, he has now reduced the output of his office to avoid a “distraction to his important work”.
We still haven’t seen that “important work”.
At this rate, Riches’ legacy will be overseeing the building his office is in razed to the ground and a garden built in its place, so that some fine sunny day there will be no trace that the Northern Territory ever had an anti-corruption body.
Christopher Walsh is the editor of the NT Independent and formerly held roles as senior political reporter at the NT News and investigations producer at ABC Darwin. He is also co-author of Crocs in the Cabinet: An Instruction Manual on How Not to Run a Government.