‘Unmanageable conflict of interest’: Ombudsman slams fellow integrity watchdog – The Age

‘Unmanageable conflict of interest’: Ombudsman slams fellow integrity watchdog - The Age

Victorian Ombudsman Deborah Glass has declared she will no longer engage with the head of the Victorian Inspectorate, accusing him of bias and abuses of power in his exercise of scrutiny over her office.

In an October letter to Attorney-General Jaclyn Symes marked “Sensitive Private and Confidential”, obtained by The Age, Glass alleges the little-known head of the inspectorate, Eamonn Moran, had conflicts of interest in his dealing with her and warned she could take formal action if he pressed her to engage with his office. It is unclear what that action would be.

Glass’ letter followed three inspectorate investigations of her office. The Age is unaware which matters the inspectorate was probing, but it appears no public report was published as a result. In her letter Glass notes that original serious allegations against her “were not substantiated”.

An inspectorate spokeswoman said Moran was not aware of the Glass letter, nor its contents, and that engagement with the Office of the Ombudsman continued “as usual”.

The ombudsman is a key integrity agency with a budget of over $20 million established in 1973 to scrutinise the administration of state departments, local councils and statutory authorities, including in response to public complaints and referrals from parliament.

The inspectorate was established in 2013 by the Baillieu government to oversee other integrity, accountability and investigatory bodies including the Ombudsman, Independent Broad-based Anti-corruption Commission (IBAC), and Auditor-General. It is the watchdog of the watchdogs with an annual budget of over $5 million.

Victorian Ombudsman Deborah Glass.

Victorian Ombudsman Deborah Glass. Credit:Paul Jeffers

A collapse of the relationship between Glass and Moran would leave a troubling gap in the state’s integrity machinery, limiting the ability of the agencies to effectively carry out their public interest duties.

It comes after integrity was a major issue at both the federal and state elections and for the Andrews government since the November state poll. A survey for the launch of The Age’s Victoria’s Agenda series ahead of the last state election found integrity was the number one issue for the 5500 respondents.

Glass refused to discuss the letter with The Age and said she would not comment on “private correspondence”.

In her letter she raises her concerns about Moran’s conduct during investigations and alleges “retaliatory behaviour” toward her after she complained about the conduct of a “lengthy, disproportionate and biased investigation, years after the relevant events had been resolved”.

Head of the Victorian Inspectorate, Eamonn Moran.

Head of the Victorian Inspectorate, Eamonn Moran.

Glass alleges that the tension in relations between the Moran and herself, including his knowledge of her complaint about him to the parliamentary Integrity and Oversight Committee, left Moran with an “unmanageable conflict of interest” in his dealings with her.

But the Inspectorate spokeswoman said: “There is no conflict of interest that prevents the Inspector from dealing with any integrity agency or agency head.”

“Legislation prevents the Victorian Inspectorate and the Inspector from disclosing any information regarding complaints and investigations, however, be assured that the Victorian Inspectorate operates lawfully and without bias and takes as much time as is required to conduct thorough investigations.”

In her missive Glass calls for reform, arguing it is not necessary for the agency that oversees bodies like the Ombudsman and IBAC to have coercive powers.

“All that is needed to perform an effective oversight role is a statutory requirement for integrity agencies to cooperate with the inspector’s reasonable requirements,” she says.

Glass also notes that unlike agencies such as her own, the inspectorate does not have the discretion to ignore complaints or allegations about the agencies under its watch, or to abandon investigations if the evidence does not support a complaint. She says such discretion is a “crucial safeguard” against vexatious or ill-founded allegations.

She says Moran justified long inquiries into her office and herself by arguing he had “no choice”.

Glass alleges that her experience of the inspector’s approach exposed “serious weaknesses” in the state’s integrity system and she describes the absence of legislative checks on the inspectorate’s “considerable coercive powers” as an “obvious flaw”.

IBAC commissioner Robert Redlich and Victorian Ombudsman Deborah Glass.

IBAC commissioner Robert Redlich and Victorian Ombudsman Deborah Glass.Credit:Paul Jeffers

“My experience confirms that a legislative scheme lacking the necessary checks and balances heightens the risk of high-handed conduct by the occupant of the [inspector’s] role.”

Glass’ missive comes on the back of controversy around a letter from then-commissioner of the anti-corruption watchdog IBAC, Robert Redlich, to the speaker and president of state parliament, in which he slammed government control of the Integrity and Oversight committee and alleged the committee had sought to undermine IBAC.

Late last month the government relinquished control of the parliamentary committee, its arm forced when the Opposition and Greens threatened to join forces to demand an inquiry into Labor’s alleged suppression of Redlich’s December letter.

In her letter Glass also raises concern about the committee. She explains that she lodged a ‘public interest complaint’ about Moran in June but that the committee failed to launch an investigation until October. It then allowed just three weeks to complete an investigation and to compile and deliver a report which ultimately found her complaint was not substantiated, she says.

Glass says the truncated timeframe for the examination of the complaint led her “to question the Committee, not to mention the Government’s, commitment to a meaningful investigation”.

Glass was appointed to a 10-year stint as Ombudsman in 2014. She has just entered her last year in the job.

The Inspector role is for five years but is renewable. Moran is currently acting for six months after expiry of his first term in December.

Attorney-General Jaclyn Symes did not respond to questions about Glass’ letter.

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Source: theage.com.au

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