Thursday, 27 March 2008

Ruthless and grubby: DPP lashes Morris Iemma's team

THE Director of Public Prosecutions, Nicholas Cowdery, has dumped a bucket on the Iemma Government, describing it as "ruthless", guilty of "grubby" tactics and saying it has "crucified" his office.

Mr Cowdery also said he believed the Premier, Morris Iemma, was controlled by backroom powerbrokers and that the Attorney-General, John Hatzistergos, was a "micro-manager" who had lost sight of the "bigger picture".

The interview came in the wake of an Auditor-General's report, ordered by the Treasurer, Michael Costa, which found the Director of Public Prosecutions' office had failed to demonstrate it was efficient and that over the past five years its budget had been increased by 40 per cent while its caseload fell 30 per cent.

The Government will use the report to place a politically appointed executive director in the office to manage finances, with the position to have the same status as a deputy director of public prosecutions.

Mr Cowdery expressed concern at that appointment, saying it could lead to the DPP's independence being compromised and endanger politically sensitive cases such as the recent conviction of the former minister Milton Orkopoulos for child sex offences.

Mr Cowdery blamed legislative changes, public sector pay rises and difficult cases for the figures produced in the report. He said the budget had been increased because it was previously inadequate and said the report should have focused on workload, rather than caseload. He said in the past year there had been a 15 per cent increase in caseload.

Mr Cowdery said he and his staff had been "targeted" and "crucified" by Mr Costa, who wrote to the Auditor-General requesting the report.

"It seemed to me from the request that Costa made to the Auditor-General that he was looking for some basis for criticism of this office," Mr Cowdery said. "Despite the words that are spoken from time to time, the Government is not comfortable with the idea of an independent office of the DPP making prosecution decisions independently of outside influence.

"Certainly since the last election there has been a refocused targeting of me and independent prosecutors."

He pointed to laws introduced last year establishing limited periods of tenure for his successor and crown prosecutors, "the continuing refusal to acknowledge we are in financial difficulty in this office", and "the suggestion there should be an executive director appointed" as ways his office was undermined.

Mr Cowdery accused Mr Hatzistergos and his office of exerting "constant pressure by correspondence and otherwise" on him and his office.

"My experience with the Attorney-General has been that he likes to micromanage the activities of the agencies in his portfolio and particularly this office and my concern is that in that micromanagement he may lose sight perhaps of the bigger picture that policymakers need," Mr Cowdery said.

Asked his opinion on the Premier, Mr Cowdery said that he had never met him but "my view is that he probably acts at the urging of others behind the scenes rather than establishing his own agenda and running with it".

He said Mr Costa was "a very determined and forceful individual who likes to get his own way".

Mr Cowdery said the appointment of an executive director would lead to the "politicisation" of his office with a "political appointment to a senior managerial position".

"The public needs to know that there will not be outside influences, perhaps subtle ones … pushing the decision-making and the prosecution process in particular directions or even in particular cases," he said.

"The possibility would be there of an administrative person, a manager, being privy to legal information … perhaps having some influence of the resources applied to dealing with particular matters."

Mr Cowdery accused the Government of a "grubby and unjustified" attack against the shadow attorney-general and former deputy director of public prosecutions, Greg Smith, over his handling of the case involving the former deputy senior crown prosecutor Patrick Power being found to possess child pornography.

The Police Minister, David Campbell, at the behest of the Premier's office, flayed Mr Smith in Parliament last year over his actions in informing Mr Power of the discovery before informing police.

Mr Smith, after consulting Mr Cowdery, called in Power last July after child pornography was found on Power's work computer. He questioned him about it before allowing him to leave. Mr Smith then called in police.

Mr Cowdery conceded yesterday that perhaps "other views" to the actions of himself and Mr Smith on the Power matter were the "the right way to go" and added that "we've conceded that we'll take different action in the future".

But he said of the attack on Mr Smith that it was "very unfair, improper and out of place".

He said of the Government in general: "I think ruthless is a fair word to describe it. There is little room for give and take when the Government has a particular idea of what we should be doing. Recent experience is that it just keeps insisting that things be done until they are done."

He made a joke during a photo session that he felt as if he was being crucified at Easter time and then confirmed in the interview that was how he felt.

"It's ironic [the report] comes after Easter but … [it] will have a serious effect on morale in the office. The lawyers in this office already feel that … the whole office has been singled out for unfavourable treatment and this will only make those feelings worse."

Mr Cowdery admitted that overseas travel he had regularly undertaken at taxpayer expense to attend conferences in his 13 years in the job had not helped his "cause in the public eye or political eye".

But, he said "the reality is those overseas trips that have been made have all been with the approval of the attorney-general at the time" and had all been "looking at ways of improving our methods of enhancing the service we provide here".

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