Integrity commissioner Jaala Hinchcliffe has reminded government agencies that corruption “does not occur in a vacuum”, after an investigation found that former commonwealth employee Erol Ibrahim had abused his position.
In a report released by the Australian Commission for Law Enforcement Integrity (ACLEI) on Wednesday, Hinchcliffe outlined details of a corruption incident involving the former Department of Agriculture, Water and Environment employee.
ACLEI’s investigation into the incident, Operation Voss, commenced in 2016 and resulted in three criminal prosecutions.
The report detailed how Ibrahim had helped the owner of a multimillion-dollar company, ‘Company A’, import flowers into Australia, and had accepted benefits from the company’s owner, ‘Person B’.
The Agriculture department is responsible for conducting quarantine inspections of commercial imports of fresh flowers. The value of flowers may be reduced if they are sent to fumigation as part of the inspection.
The investigation found that Ibrahim — who worked primarily as a cargo inspector — would often have dinner with Person B, and was also associated with their son, ‘Person C’. In August 2012, after five years at the department, Ibrahim moved into an Audit Services role, and began providing confidential departmental information to Persons B and C, the report noted.
“The information included commercial-in-confidence and other information about importers who were competitors of Company A, including information that revealed importation quantities, types of flowers being imported, freight costs, profit margins and costs of certain products of Company A’s competitors,” it said.
“Requests for information would be sent from Person B or C to Mr Ibrahim via text message and Mr Ibrahim would access the department systems to obtain the information. He would then either text the information back to Person B or C or write it down on paper from the screen.”
The report noted that Ibrahim also began working for the company in 2013, but failed to declare it to the department. After returning to a cargo inspections role in 2015, Ibrahim began manipulating overtime requests. He ensured that he was the inspector for Company A’s consignments, and conducted those inspections on overtime shifts, the report said.
“Mr Ibrahim conducted inspections of Company A’s consignments with leniency,” it said.
“He would allow Persons B and C to bring him the plant samples of their choice, rather than inspecting a representative sample. He was gentle in the inspection of consignments and as a result it was less likely any insects would be located.”
Ibrahim received benefits from Persons B and C in the form of “small and irregular” cash payments totalling less than $10,000, as well as overseas travel, part time employment with one of their companies, information to enable him to obtain overtime shifts with Agriculture, and gifts such as flowers, ornaments and whisky.
In January 2017, the department executed a search warrant on Company A’s premises. Ibrahim resigned the following month. The day of his resignation, ACLEI, the Australian Federal Police and Agriculture executed search warrants at Ibrahim’s home and business premises linked to Company A.
Ibrahim was convicted and sentenced by the County Court of Victoria in May 2019, after he pleaded guilty to receiving a bribe as a commonwealth public official, and to disclosing information as a commonwealth officer. Ibrahim was fined $10,000 and sentenced to 3 years’ imprisonment, suspended to a good behaviour bond for 3 years.
In September 2020, Person B pleaded guilty to a charge of giving a corrupting benefit to a commonwealth public official, and was sentenced to 18 months’ imprisonment. He was also ordered to pay a fine of $20,000. Meanwhile, Person C pleaded guilty to a charge of aiding and abetting the giving of corrupting benefits to a commonwealth public official, and was sentenced to 7 months’ imprisonment.
Hinchcliffe has found that Ibrahim engaged in corrupt conduct, specifically through “abuse of office”.
“The evidence demonstrates that Mr Ibrahim used his position to conduct lenient inspections of plants imported by Persons B and C in return for a benefit that included cash, overseas travel, part time employment with them and information to obtain overtime shifts with the Department of Agriculture,” she wrote in the report.
“The evidence also demonstrates that Mr Ibrahim provided confidential information held by the Department of Agriculture to Persons B and C. I am therefore satisfied Mr Ibrahim engaged in corrupt conduct.”
The integrity commissioner noted that the formation of external relationships by law enforcement officers can create integrity risks and enable corrupt conduct to occur. In cases like Ibrahim’s, this can sometimes lead to “grooming”.
“Grooming is where external parties or criminal entities target officers due to the officer’s access to valuable information or ability to make decisions. Once officers are targeted, groomers establish trust through building relationships over time. During this period, officers may become dependent on any benefits they receive by the groomer,” Hinchcliffe wrote.
“Groomers then begin to request the targeted officers undertake actions or provide information to them, and officers comply. Over time, groomers then capitalise on the relationship and due to the fear or threat of their complicity being exposed, officers continue to fulfil subsequent requests.”
However, corruption “does not occur in a vacuum”, Hinchcliffe warned, and is often accompanied by poor workplace practices and other issues — such the ability to disregard established work procedures or policies and poor operational security — that allow the conduct to occur, unnoticed.
Hinchcliffe has called on government agencies to be aware of the signs that staff may be at risk of grooming, and to consider how workplace practices and policies can provide necessary oversight and support to workers.
“Where officers have access to sensitive information and the ability to make influential decisions regarding the clearance of goods, appropriate checks and balances should be implemented to prevent integrity risks,” she wrote.
The Agriculture department has implemented a number of controls to address vulnerabilities in light of the findings, Hinchcliffe said. She delivered her investigation report to the attorney-general and the Agriculture secretary in February, and subsequently decided it was in the public interest to publish the document.