Newly appointed Independent Commissioner Against Corruption Michael Riches has issued an extraordinary public statement following allegations about the integrity of his office made by the NT News and Darwin Turf Club chairman Brett Dixon.
Mr Riches said while he does not seek public attention and “would prefer to let my work speak for itself”, he felt compelled to make the statement following “recent media commentary and speculation”.
The NT News reported over the weekend that OICAC contracted researcher Dr Robyn Smith, who was involved in the preparation of the recent grandstand corruption report, had previously completed work for the Turf Club in 2013.
The paper relied on emails provided by Mr Dixon that showed Dr Smith had a disagreement with the then DTC CEO about the payment of money for a book she was preparing on the history of the club.
The emails showed that Dr Smith was eventually paid and completed the work as per an agreed-upon contract.
The NT News reported that ICAC Inspector Bruce McClintock is currently investigating how a possible conflict of interest was handled, after being referred by Mr Riches, at either the NT News’s or Mr Dixon’s request.
The NT News also reported last week that police commissioner Jamie Chalker has launched a separate investigation into allegations made by Mr Dixon that the OICAC had potentially leaked information reported in the NT Independent about the former NT News’ editor’s involvement in the grandstand scandal, which they did not defend, but demanded to know how the NT Independent knew about the matter.
The newspaper also reported that Chief Minister Michael Gunner inexplicably involved himself in the process by calling for the police to investigate the NT Independent and the OICAC instead of Mr Dixon, who was found to have engaged in corrupt conduct.
Mr Riches said in the statement this morning that maintaining the integrity of the Office of the ICAC was his top priority.
“Where allegations of impropriety are made about my staff or me, they will be taken seriously,” he said.
“It matters not to me who made the allegation or the circumstances in which the allegation is made. What matters to me is the integrity of this office, which must be above reproach.
“The matters that have been raised over the last week will be investigated. I will cooperate fully with those investigations.
“As with any investigation, these processes must be allowed to run their course. I should not, and will not, speculate on the outcome of any investigation into allegations against staff within my office, in the same way that I will not speculate on the outcome of an investigation that I conduct.
“In the meantime, I want to reassure public officers and the public that my integrity and my independence will be fundamental to how I discharge my duties. I will demand the same of my staff.
“I did not take on this role to win a popularity contest. I took on this role because it is important. I am firmly of the view that an effective anti-corruption agency can make a significant positive impact on integrity in public administration. I want to be able to get on with that important work.”
ICAC grandstand investigation found Dixon engaged in corrupt conduct, ‘senior media figure’ provided favourable coverage
Retired ICAC Ken Fleming released a report into the $12 million taxpayer-funded Turf Club grandstand in late June, which made adverse findings against five people, including finding that Mr Dixon engaged in corrupt conduct.
He also found a “senior media figure” – later identified by the NT Independent as NT News editor Matt Williams – pledged to provide Mr Dixon with favourable media coverage while Mr Dixon was facing public scrutiny over the alleged misuse of public funds in an agreement that “continues to this day”.
Mr Dixon’s company Jaytex Constructions was awarded the tender to build the grandstand after more than a year of lobbying the Gunner Government for the project. The ICAC investigation found Mr Dixon did not disclose conflicts of interest and had an advantage over other tenderers when his company submitted for the project.
Mr Dixon has launched Supreme Court action to have the findings thrown out.
Disclosure: Dr Smith’s work has been published by the NT Independent, including on the University of Newcastle’s award-winning frontier massacres research project. She has also been published in the NT News and won a Walkley Award in 2019 for her contributions to the massacres project in collaboration with Guardian Australia.
READ THE FULL STATEMENT BY INDEPENDENT COMMISSIONER AGAINST CORRUPTION MICHAEL RICHES:
I do not generally seek public attention through the media. I would prefer to let my work speak for itself. Nevertheless in light of recent media commentary and speculation about my office, I feel compelled to make this statement.
Four weeks ago I commenced as the Independent Commissioner Against Corruption for the Northern Territory. I am honoured to have been appointed to that position. I think an effective anti-corruption agency is an important tool in ensuring ethical and accountable decision-making in government.
Having been in the role for such a short period of time, I am still learning the way in which my office has operated in the past in order that I may set a path for its future.
Fundamental to that future is public confidence. Both the public, and those who work in public administration, must have confidence in this office. If that confidence is eroded so too is my ability to be effective.
It is for that reason I have decided to make this statement.
This office commenced in November 2018. It has been operating for less than three years. Establishing an entirely new agency from scratch is a monumental effort. I owe a debt of gratitude to every individual who was involved in its establishment.
I have been impressed by the staff. They are motivated and committed to their duties. They are enthusiastic about the future and the positive impact that this office can have on public integrity. That is pleasing.
There are a great many opportunities that I can already identify which I hope will have a positive influence on public integrity. But as I have already said, there is little prospect of having that positive influence unless this office is trusted.
I have not previously commented upon activities conducted by this office prior to my commencement. I will continue to decline to do so, save to say the following.
Those who work in my office must act with the utmost integrity. I demand nothing less of myself and my staff. Anyone who cannot or will not meet that expectation has no place in my team.
Where allegations of impropriety are made about my staff or me, they will be taken seriously. It matters not to me who made the allegation or the circumstances in which the allegation is made. What matters to me is the integrity of this office, which must be above reproach.
I encourage, and in some cases direct, individuals to come forward and provide me with information. Making a report and providing information to this office takes courage. Indeed one of the objects of the ICAC Act is to protect ‘persons who put themselves at risk of harm by exposing or reporting improper conduct’. A person’s willingness to make a report will inevitably be influenced by the person’s perception of the integrity of this office.
Individuals must trust that when they come to the ICAC the information they provide will be treated in confidence, and in accordance with law. They must trust that those in the office will at all times act with the utmost integrity.
I would be surprised if anyone did not agree that that is of fundamental importance.
The matters that have been raised over the last week will be investigated. I will cooperate fully with those investigations.
As with any investigation, these processes must be allowed to run their course. I should not, and will not, speculate on the outcome of any investigation into allegations against staff within my office, in the same way that I will not speculate on the outcome of an investigation that I conduct.
In the meantime I want to reassure public officers and the public that my integrity and my independence will be fundamental to how I discharge my duties. I will demand the same of my staff.
I did not take on this role to win a popularity contest. I took on this role because it is important. I am firmly of the view that an effective anti-corruption agency can make a significant positive impact on integrity in public administration. I want to be able to get on with that important work.
As Commissioner I will focus on four important functions. First, I will only investigate the most serious allegations of improper conduct. Matters that I do not consider warrant the direct use of this office’s investigative resources will be referred to another agency and, if I think it necessary, I will oversee the way in which that agency deals with the matter.
Second, I will drive a renewed focus on working with agencies to improve their integrity. I am firmly of the view that agency heads are responsible for ensuring their agency operates with integrity and that processes are in place to ensure that those who choose to operate without integrity will be identified and dealt with. I see my role as working with those agencies to assist in that objective, whether that be through education, evaluations or oversight.
Third, I want to ensure that whistleblowers have adequate protections. Over coming months I intend to review the guidelines issued by this office pertaining to whistleblower protection and to better understand agency approaches to protected disclosures.
Finally, I will expand our ability to communicate with those in public administration and the public by analysing our information and producing resources of value. Those resources will assist in identifying trends or themes of concern, enabling me to notify agency heads of ongoing risks, and to bring to the public’s attention our activities and our observations.
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.
I will have more to say about the activities of this office at a later time.