Minister fingers ‘incorrect’ departmental advice after employee defamation settlement

By Stephen Easton

Thursday December 15, 2016

Male Judge Writing On Paper In Courtroom

Ministers all over might think twice before giving public servants a bucketing after Western Australian frontbencher Joe Francis finally settled a defamation case brought by one of his former top executives this week — or they might take note of the excuse he offered the media yesterday.

Apparently, it was “incorrect” advice from within the Department of Corrective Services that led to Francis attacking the department’s former chief financial officer George Kessaris in March.

Kessaris had tried to take a stand against very serious and ongoing financial negligence by refusing to sign off on the DCS annual financial statements and putting his serious concerns into a four-page internal memo to other executives.

The problem for the government arose in March when the memo was leaked to the media by persons unknown, and Francis went on the defensive. Firmly grasping the wrong end of the stick, the minister said Kessaris was just a disgruntled employee who lost his job after he “got caught out through incompetence” and added he found it “amazing” the CFO “wouldn’t sign off on his own work”.

Now, the minister says he made those comments on the basis of “the best knowledge and advice that I had at the time from the department at the time” and complains that he could not answer questions from the media if he had to “stop and get legal advice” every time, the ABC reports.

It seems Francis is claiming the department’s leaders advised him that the financial mismanagement was at least partially the fault of the man who reported it, refused to endorse it by signing off on the annual statements, and was soon moved out of the CFO job to another role.

The opposition and the public sector union have suggested the minister was simply embarrassed and angry about having to answer questions over the financial mismanagement, and turned on the person who put it in writing to deflect blame, in classic government style.

Joe Francis
Joe Francis

An investigation into who leaked the memo came to nought. But the minister’s sharp comments were followed at the time by some departmental damage control from the Commissioner for Corrective Services, James McMahon. McMahon spoke up on behalf of public service whistleblowers in general, denied Kessaris had been forced out of the CFO role due to writing the memo, and described writing it as the action of a public servant who “cares about his job”.

Francis doesn’t have to pay the confidential settlement that was awarded to Kessaris this week — taxpayers will take care of that — but he did have to write a formal apology.

In that letter, he accepts Kessaris’ transfer to another position in the department was “a mutual decision and not intended to be, or regarded as a demotion” and apologises for how “some viewers and readers may have understood” his defamatory comments.

Kessaris has reportedly been on leave since September this year while the department finds him another position. But he told the ABC he felt abandoned, targeted and betrayed by his employer. In sending the memo that so offended the minister when it was leaked, the then-CFO felt he was following the professional ethics of a chartered accountant, but now he feels his public service career is over.

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