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Corruption watchdog in firing line as Logan council fraud charges thrown out

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Fraud charges against eight former Logan councillors have been sensationally dropped in a major embarrassment for the state’s corruption watchdog and the Palaszczuk Government, which sacked the entire council two years ago following the charges.

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The councillors, including former mayor Luke Smith, were dumped from their roles after the Crime and Corruption Commission charged them with fraud over the dismissal of former council CEO Sharon Kelsey.

But prosecutors on Wednesday told the Brisbane Magistrates Court they would offer no evidence on the charges, which were withdrawn.

The Local Government Association of Queensland immediately called for an independent inquiry into what it described as the “wrongful dismissal of a democratically elected council” and the standing aside of CCC chair Alan MacSporran for the duration of the inquiry.

In a statement issued later, the CCC rejected the need for an inquiry.

In what he described as a vindication for all the former Logan councillors, LGAQ chief executive Greg Hallam also said they should be compensated and offered a public apology.

“Careers, lives and reputations were ruined and a democratically elected council wrongly sacked before these erroneously laid charges could be properly tested by the courts,” Hallam said.

“There must be an independent review to ensure this is not allowed to happen again.

He also called for the release of the legal advice which led to the CCC laying the fraud charges.

The LGAQ consistently argued that the CCC had no jurisdiction over what was an industrial relations mater between the council and its former CEO.

“The unprecedented actions of the CCC in this case set about a chain of events that irreparably damaged the lives and reputations of those involved and disenfranchised the Logan community as a consequence of the sacking of the entire council in May 2019,” Hallam said.

“There should be compensation and a public apology for this egregious misuse of the justice system.”

The councillors – Smith, Cherie Dalley, Jennie Green, Laurie Smith, Phi Pidgeon, Russell Luton, Steve Swenson and Trevina Schwarz – were charged after they voted in 2018 to sack Kelsey, who claimed she was a whistleblower exposing alleged corruption at the council.

In an extraordinary step, Alan MacSporran wrote to the council warning them against dismissing Kelsey, who was on probation in the position and had received a negative performance review.

They dismissed her anyway, were charged with fraud and subsequently dismissed according to laws brought in by the Palaszczuk Government allowing for the suspension of any mayor or councillor charged with a criminal offence.

The sackings meant Logan council was unable to muster a quorum and so the then local government minister Stirling Hinchliffe opted to dismiss the entire council.

Outside court, Schwarz said the death of the presumption of innocence that the sackings demonstrated was appalling.

An emotional Pidgeon said the charges and ongoing legal turmoil had cost his 22-year career, his reputation and almost his marriage.

“This toll has resulted in relationship breakdown. It has destroyed my marriage and luckily my wife is here today – we are reconciling and trying to come through this,” he told reporters outside court.

“This is unfair and unwarranted and I have never seen something like this happen in the history of Australia.”

“There needs to be some form of making this right,” he said.

“We are all innocent of these charges and something needs to happen to make sure this does not happen again.”

A separate corruption case against Smith is ongoing.

A new Logan council was elected in March last year, headed up by mayor Darren Power, who backed Sharon Kelsey in her dispute wth the council.

MacSporran issued a statement late Wednesday rejecting calls for an inquiry into the matter.

He said the CCC took the view that there were reasonable prospects of a conviction against the councillors and that the charges were in the public interest.

“Like all people charged by law enforcement and investigative agencies with criminal offences, there are stages during the prosecution to test the evidence gathered during an investigation,” he said.

“This is a tenet and foundational principle of the criminal justice system. During the committal hearing in this matter, material came to light resulting in the decision to discontinue the prosecutions.

“The CCC investigates allegations of corrupt conduct but does not prosecute. Once the CCC charged these eight individuals, the briefs of evidence were forwarded to the Office and the Director of Public Prosecutions in order for them to independently assess the evidence and decide whether or not to prosecute.

“In these cases, they went ahead with the prosecutions and it was only when the committal proceedings in the Magistrates Court were well advanced that the charges were discontinued.

“The CCC, as it must, accepts the decision of the independent prosecutor in these matters.

“In light of the above, it is difficult to see how it could be reasonably suggested there should be an inquiry into the CCC’s conduct.”

He said that while the CCC accepted the decision to drop the charges “it will not deter this agency from investigating serious allegations of corrupt conduct, and where warranted, placing people before the courts”.

-with AAP

 

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