A number of senior public servants in the Queensland Department of Education failed to behave ethically by involving a politician in a recruitment process and spreading misleading information, the Crime and Corruption Commission has found.
The CCC on Thursday tabled a report on its investigation into allegations that former deputy premier Jackie Trad had interfered in a 2019 recruitment process for the principal of the new Inner City South State Secondary College in Brisbane.
Tracey Cook had been recommended by the selection panel for the role of principal, but was never offered the job. Instead, the role was readvertised and Kirsten Ferdinands was appointed.
The CCC investigation cleared Trad of the allegations, instead finding that “one senior public servant’s over-responsiveness to a politician resulted in decision-making being infected by perceived political influence”.
It also found student enrolment figures for the college were “manufactured in a way that is arguably dishonest”, and “false information” was published in a media statement, and given to the premier and education minister.
There was “no prima facie case” that Trad committed a criminal offence, or that she was motivated by any dishonest or corrupt intent, the report concluded. However, the nature of Trad’s involvement in departmental decision-making “created a corruption risk”.
“Politicians in her position need to be mindful of the influence they can have on public servants – even senior and experienced ones – and the danger that such influence can cause decision-making to miscarry,” the report said.
Further, there was a “failure of a number of senior public servants to behave ethically”, including the direction made by one employee to delete records.
“The decision to involve the deputy premier in the recruitment process was ill-advised. The failure to keep records fell well below the standards expected of senior public servants,” the report said.
“The manufacturing of the new enrolment figure was arguably dishonest, as was the deletion of the email. Similarly, the publication of false information in a media statement, and the provision of false or misleading information to the premier and [education minister Grace Grace] was also arguably dishonest.”
The CCC commenced the six month investigation in December 2019, after receiving two complaints regarding the recruitment process for the college principal.
An anonymous complaint received by the CCC in early November 2019 alleged that Trad had interfered in the recruitment process, and claimed that the education department’s regional director, metropolitan region (who was also panel chair), and a deputy director-general had conspired to conceal Trad’s interference.
The complaint claimed Trad had said “No way” in relation to Cook — who was recommended and approved to be appointed as principal, but was never offered the position.
Later that month the CCC received another anonymous complaint — again alleging Trad’s involvement — which had been forwarded to the CCC by Liberal MP Jarrod Bleijie.
The report states the anonymous letter read:
“Is the LNP aware that Jackie Trad has interfered in the selection process for the principal of the new inner city high school at Dutton Park? Approximately two months ago a panel chaired by the Department of Education selected the new principal which was awarded to [Cook]. Shortly afterwards [Cook] was forced to meet with Jackie Trad in her office alongside the panel chair [name suppressed] from [the department]. Shortly after this the position was readvertised and a different person was awarded the position of principal approximately a month ago. MPs are not part of the selection process for principals.”
A third complaint was received in May 2020, again from Bleijie, which alleged Grace may be implicated in the investigation. This allegation was not substantiated, and the CCC “found no reasonable suspicion of corrupt conduct and no information uncovered during the investigation supported the allegation”.
Public servants take note: MacSporran
CCC chair Alan MacSporran said the investigation uncovered “some very worrying and disappointing practices” which should concern all public sector employees.
“The CCC found that department officers and some selection panel members had very poor or no records of key decisions, we recovered an email that was the subject of an instruction to delete a public record, a recruitment process was interfered with by people not on the selection panel, a candidate was misled by department officers and false information was published or used to make decisions,” he said in a statement.
“All Queensland public servants and elected officials should read this report to see how a straight forward recruitment process went off the rails. This type of conduct should never occur again.”
He said that while some department officers had decided to “test” a candidate during a meeting with Trad — despite the selection panel having already made a decision — Trad “did not instigate that meeting and was not a member of the selection panel”, and the meeting wasn’t part of the original recruitment process.
Despite the investigation beginning last year, Trad was only informed in May. She resigned, which was shortly followed by the announcement that a senior Education executive had been stood aside.