Aussie PM concerned by politics in police probe

AP News
Posted: Aug 25, 2011 2:16 AM
Aussie PM concerned by politics in police probe

Australia's embattled prime minister voiced concern Thursday that her political enemies could be interfering in a police investigation of a lawmaker accused of misappropriating money to pay prostitutes _ a scandal that threatens to bring down her government.

Prime Minister Julia Gillard attacked her opponents in the Liberal Party after a newspaper reported Thursday that they had advised New South Wales state Police Commissioner Andrew Scipione last week of a dossier of evidence they had against government lawmaker Craig Thomson.

Lawmakers in Gillard's Labor Party accused New South Wales Police Minister Mike Gallacher, a Liberal lawmaker whom Scipione answers to, of tarnishing the police image of impartiality by personally telephoning the police commissioner about such a politically sensitive case.

"I am deeply concerned about what's reported in The Sydney Morning Herald," Gillard told reporters. "Our system of democracy, our system of government relies on the fact that office bearers like police commissioners independently of political processes exercise their best judgment."

Federal Attorney General Robert McClelland said New South Wales police guidelines call for officers to work impartially and without regard for possible political advantage.

"It is quite irresponsible for any politician to take a course of action that has the potential to tarnish the public's perception of that complete impartiality," McClelland told Parliament.

"Any member of the public can refer to police officers an issue of concern in respect to potential breach of the law, but to take action that purports to induce them is crossing the line," he said.

On Tuesday, Scipione announced that the police fraud squad was investigating Thomson on the basis of evidence that Liberal Sen. George Brandis faxed to the police commissioner on Monday. Thomson has denied any wrongdoing.

The dossier supported allegations _ first made public by The Sydney Morning Herald in 2009 but never acted upon by police _ that Thomson misused his Health Services Union credit card to pay thousands of dollars to a Sydney brothel in 2005 and 2007 while he was the union boss.

Police involvement surprised some observers because the alleged victim _ Thomson's former union, which is aligned with Labor _ did not refer the matter to police until Wednesday. The union had commissioned its own audit that found Thomson may have misused more than 100,000 Australian dollars in union funds.

A conviction for theft or fraud would force Thomson to quit Parliament and cost Gillard's year-old government its single-seat majority.

With opinion polls showing the government has become deeply unpopular, observers agree that the Labor Party would have little hope of retaining Thomson's seat in a by-election.

Brandis, a trained lawyer who is leading the opposition's attack on the government over the scandal, confirmed Thursday that he phoned Gallacher last week about the Thomson allegations.

Brandis said in a statement that he phoned Gallacher on Friday "as a matter of courtesy" to advise him that he intended to send the Thomson dossier to police. Gallacher phoned back Saturday to say that he had told Scipione that Scipione "would be hearing from me," Brandis said.

Gallacher said in a statement that he spoke to Scipione "out of courtesy in this matter."

Scipione's office would not immediately comment Thursday.

New South Wales Labor leader John Robertson said Gallacher should have known it was inappropriate to notify Scipione of Brandis' intentions.

"Mike Gallacher is a former police officer. He of all people as minister for police should know better," Robertson told reporters.

Gillard repeated Thursday that she had confidence in Thomson and that he is entitled to the presumption of innocence while the investigation continues.