CRIME DOES PAY - A HERALD INVESTIGATION
THE entrance is sunken several steps inside the faded purple office building. Unlike the shops and cafes that surround it, there is no sign outside, just a tiny brass plaque on the outside of the building at 453 Kent Street. Visitors state their business to an intercom.
Those who pass through the door can't help but notice the glass, as thick as a telephone directory, is bulletproof. Behind another security screen two uniformed personnel point grimly at an X-ray machine and a metal detector. Few who have been inside can talk about the NSW Crime Commission, the state's criminal intelligence agency. Those hauled there for questioning can be jailed for doing so.
It is an organisation obsessed with secrecy. For years, its chief inquisitor banned photographers from capturing his picture when he attended parliamentary hearings, something that not even Australia's spy chief demands. It was not until 2006, after 15 years at the helm, that the commissioner, Phillip Bradley, was photographed.
His staff are not police, but public servants. Yet the only information about the commission's activities is contained in an 82-page annual report; MPs are no more informed. And fundamental rules of public governance, such as the advertisement of jobs or the proper handling of complaints, do not apply.
Of all the so-called commissions around the country that wield super-judicial powers (secret surveillance and coercive interrogations), only the Kent Street organisation has no committee of Parliament to which it answers. The Australian Security Intelligence Organisation has an inspectorate to watch over it; the NSW Crime Commission knows no such thing.
Just three people have access: the heads of the NSW and federal police and the police minister. The three meet once a month with Bradley. This ''management committee'' is the organisation's only scrutineer, but it continues about its business even when one of the three does not attend. It was boycotted six years ago by the former federal police chief Mick Keelty, leaving just two men to protect the people of NSW from any abuse of its extraordinary powers.
Insiders say the meetings are light on detail. One of the country's most senior law enforcement officials put it this way: ''It comes down to Bradley saying, 'You have to trust me'.''
Now though, after two decades of impunity, the trust is wearing thin. An inquiry into the commission has raised difficult questions for Bradley and his 150-odd staff. An election looms.
One-time commission investigator and now academic Michael Kennedy says the very secrecy in which it cloaks itself is at the heart of the problem. ''If you allow a group of people to investigate organised crime … and you don't rotate them, and you don't supervise them … it is a recipe for absolute disaster,'' Kennedy says.
IN 1985, Neville Wran, then the NSW premier, established the State Drug Crime Commission - an all-powerful criminal intelligence body designed to smash drug rings and their benefactors. It could coerce unwilling witnesses, subpoena sensitive documents and strip the assets of those convicted of serious drug offences. But it had a rocky start.
The first chairman lasted only four weeks. Judge John Lloyd-Jones was howled out of the job by a legal fraternity implacably opposed to a judicial officer presiding over an investigative body.
Within a few months, no fewer than three royal commissioners who had investigated organised crime - Athol Moffitt, QC, Frank Costigan, QC, and judge Philip Woodward - all criticised the commission. Moffitt decried its ''absolute secrecy''; Woodward that it was an unnecessary duplication of the National Crime Authority; and Costigan that it would be subject to party political control.
But within the organisation, keen detectives relished their new-found powers. Kennedy says the body did good investigative work in the early days: Operation Hobby, into a gang of violent armed robbers including Bob Chapman and Arthur ''Neddy'' Smith, and Operation Azure, into drug trafficking, were two early successes.
At first the body had three sitting ''members'' - the chairman, Richard Job, QC, former judge Barry Thorley and a retired vice-admiral, David Leach. They sat on the management committee but they also held their own meetings and could separately raise concerns with the minister.
That was all to change, however. In 1989, the commission picked up a promising 37-year-old prosecutor, Phillip Bradley. He had worked for the National Crime Authority and the Stewart royal commission, but now Bradley was to taste real power. Within six years, he would sweep to the top of the intelligence body, installing a fiercely competitive, loyal culture along the way. Made chairman in August 1993, he began consolidating his position and the powers he wielded.
When Thorley retired from the board six months later, Bradley did not replace him. Then, in 1996, his only other fellow commissioner, the former judge Clarrie Briese, also resigned. Instead of nominating another board member, the legislation was amended to do away with the position altogether. Bradley was no longer chairman of the crime commission, who shared his powers and responsibilities with other eminent jurists - he was the commission.
A consummate lobbyist, Bradley demanded more power. Soon he had the licence to investigate almost all serious criminal offences, the ability to issue arrest warrants to force people to undergo interrogation and the power to refuse them certain legal representation. Even if their answers would be self-incriminating, witnesses no longer had the right to silence. Seven years ago, the commission was also granted broad immunity from freedom of information laws.
Bradley's influence extended beyond the Kent Street building. He has played an influential role in the selection of the heads of the Police Integrity Commission and the Australian Crime Commission. At the end of 2002, Bradley was acting chairman of the ACC, holding both positions simultaneously.
Those close to him say he is a crusader, devoted to the cause of fighting organised crime in NSW.
''Bradley can be very sharp and offensive,'' a senior Canberra law enforcement official said. ''He routinely falls out with the heads of agencies. He does not care who he offends. He just wants a result for him and his organisation.''
But with such little accountability, some inside his beloved commission began to push the boundaries of acceptable law enforcement practice.
WITHIN the inner sanctum of the commission, there is a certain fervour. The organisation claims responsibility for 80 per cent of the state's organised crime arrests. There are moments, its officers say, when the choice is ''life and death'', when they must move fast and forcefully to stop violent crime.
And while police and prosecutors want everything by the book, there is a view inside Kent Street that the book is inadequate. Joint task force members express astonishment at the gung-ho attitude of their crime commission colleagues.
In 1992, the commission gave a known crook and liar, Ray Younan, $340,000 in a sting operation that went badly awry: the money disappeared. The police involved were hauled before the Wood royal commission, but those involved from the NSW Crime Commission were not.
There was a listening device warrant sought 10 years ago by the commission for a record 114 people - including police, a barrister and a journalist - for a period of several weeks. The fall-out from that operation resulted in the police union calling for an inquiry into the commission's secret ways. No such inquiry occurred.
And most infamous was its decision, in 2004, to sell seven kilograms of cocaine via an informant. A covert sting aimed at bringing down a major syndicate, the plan was so controversial (police often covertly buy drugs, but never sell them) it prompted Keelty's boycott of the management committee.
All seven kilograms were sold, but only one kilogram was recovered. The effect was ''jaw-dropping'' for the magistrate who examined some of the evidence: the state had supplied illegal drugs. The opposition called unsuccessfully for an investigation. Bradley later told Parliament no procedural changes were needed in the wake of the affair.
The operation, while unorthodox, was also successful. Some of Australia's most senior drug suppliers were jailed. For those grinding away inside the commission, this was vindication enough.
BRADLEY recently appointed his first full-time assistant commissioner. Peter Singleton, an accomplished barrister, is widely expected to take over.
Maybe Bradley, now 59, sees the writing on the wall; a new government is likely only weeks away. The opposition's police spokesman, Michael Gallacher, called for a royal commission in 2008. ''The culture of the crime commission has moved away from what we want,'' he told Parliament. ''Far too often it is about sitting down with organised crime figures and negotiating an outcome with respect to the forfeiture or seizure of assets.''
Also in Parliament, Bradley's former colleague from the Commonwealth prosecutors' office, Greg Smith, the shadow attorney-general, agreed: ''The commissioner of the Crime Commission is a friend of mine and I mean no aspersion to him, but it is clear that something rotten has occurred in the Crime Commission for some time.''