Anti-Corruption Day: 7 factors enabling crook public servants

By Stephen Easton

Wednesday December 9, 2015

Greed, power, influence, ignorance, impunity, complacency and poor governance are the “seven deadly sins of corruption” according to Western Australia’s public sector watchdog.

WA corruption and crime commissioner John McKechnie QC runs through the list of factors and how they combine to create the space for wrongdoing, in a video (above) produced to mark the United Nations’ International Anti-Corruption Day today. “A fish rots from the head,” he comments, on the risk created by senior leaders who are lax about integrity, or in the worst cases, corrupt themselves.

“We want an anti-corruption agency that stands in the sunlight as a beacon that people can go to.”

“We want to raise awareness in the community and the public service that it’s not sufficient to let it pass by,” McKechnie said on ABC radio yesterday (full interview below). “People need to be active, alert and report it when they see it. It’s a $1 trillion problem across the world.”

The WA Supreme Court justice and former Director of Public Prosecutions admits that reporting corruption takes courage and said it was a “fair point” that the usual promises of protection for whistleblowers were not very reassuring.

“Some people risk everything in blowing the whistle on corruption and poor practice,” he said. “And there’s a limit, to be blunt, on how they can be protected. We do what we can, but it is a brave person who steps forward.”

He asked public servants and the public to look out for suspicious activities like government contracts repeatedly going to the same supplier, public bodies being apparently overcharged, as well as favours or gifts to public officials.

“I’ve never understood why elected officials and public servants ever need gifts to do their job,” McKechnie said.

It was only quite recently that serious criminality was found within the Corruption and Crime Commission itself. The relatively new commissioner would neither defend the CCC for what occurred before his time, nor take responsibility for it, but said the embarrassing and disappointing incident had led to sharper internal integrity measures that were needed all along.

Operating furtively from a different site to the commission’s main office, members of a covert investigations team abused their significant special powers to commit a litany of crimes. In a perfect example of behaviour the CCC is supposed to stamp out, they kept fraudulent records, illegally used false identities to trick other government agencies, lied about past convictions, and misused public money.

All of the staff involved are no longer with the commission but McKechnie said the “extraordinarily disappointing” incident “forced the organisation to do what it probably should have done ages ago and put in place proper policies and proper checks”.

“The acting commissioners who ran the organisation for a year started the process of pointing it in the right direction and reform, and I’ve been able to carry on.”

He said he was “pleasantly surprised” to find the remaining staff “highly skilled and highly motivated” even though their morale was understandably shaken by the crimes of their former operations team colleagues: “I’m dealing with the here and now and will take responsibility for what happens now.”

The CCC now works closely with the WA Public Sector Commission, which took over responsibility for minor misconduct while McKechnie’s team focuses on serious crime.

On top of massive reputational damage from the revelation of serious corruption inside the corruption commission, the experienced lawyer said there was also the the typical “whispering campaign” that seeks to dilute the influence of such powerful oversight bodies and undermine their findings, which he observed for years before he took on the role.

“It will take more than just a little publicity to reassure the public and regain the public’s trust,” said McKechnie. “That will take years and effective work on our part.” He believes the CCC has “largely fulfilled its purpose” and said it would continue to do so.

To build that trust, he says agencies like his need to build faith by treating people with fairness, and providing confidentiality when required, as simply being called to give evidence at a corruption hearing is enough to tarnish a public servant’s reputation.

McKechnie added the commission could not afford to scare potential witnesses away: “Corruption is too important. It flourishes in the shadows. It flourishes in the dark. We want an anti-corruption agency that stands in the sunlight as a beacon that people can go to.”

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