NBN leak pits minister against AFP commissioner

Colvin's Keystone Cops okayed outsider's photos during raid

The Australian Federal Police's (AFP's) raid on Australian parliamentarians and their staffers over leaked documents on delays to the National Broadband Network (NBN) leaked-documents raid had more fallout over the weekend, with the AFP criticised for allowing an nbnTM staffer to photograph documents seized in Thursday night's raid, and the communications minister acknowledging he knew about the investigation.

The row first blew up on Thursday night, May 19, when AFP officers raided an office used by Senator Stephen Conroy and the home of a staffer to the opposition Labor party's communications spokesperson Jason Clare.

Australia's Communications minister Mitch Fifield on Saturday issued a statement saying that he was aware of the AFP's investigation into leaks of confidential nbnTM documents. Because the investigation was ongoing, he did not tell prime minister Malcolm Turnbull (presumably to protect the information from being leaked).

His acknowledgement, however, seems to directly contradict AFP commissioner Andrew Colvin's answer to a question put at seven minutes, 51 seconds, in his Friday press conference.

A journalist (The Register believes from the Australian Broadcasting Corporation) asks whether “the relevant portfolio minister, Senator Fifield, his department, or his office” were “aware at any point since December that this investigation was under way”, and Colvin answers “no”.

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Earlier in the press conference, Colvin had already said: “In fact, the government became aware of this investigation shortly after the commencement of the operational activity yesterday. Shortly after that, I also spoke to the Opposition Leader as a matter of courtesy, to advise him the AFP was conducting this operational activity” (emphasis added).

Senator Fifield's statement came after a story behind the paywall of The Australian stated that he'd been told about the investigation.

Snapchat doesn't mix with search warrants

The story had already got extra legs when it emerged that an nbnTM staffer accompanying the AFP during the raid had disseminated photographs of seized documents.

The staffer has been identified as Simon Lee-Steere, nbnTM's general manager for security investigations, although in the only public document (below) his name has been redacted

The facts, as they're known, are spelled out in this letter from the ALP's lawyers, Galbally & O'Bryan, to AFP Commander Paul Osborne.

  • An nbnTM staffer who accompanied the AFP, with the AFP's authorisation, took more than 30 photographs of documents in Senator Conroy's office and at the homes of ALP staffers also raided;
  • Although subsequently deleted from the nbnTM staffer's phone, the photographs were shared outside the group executing the warrants;
  • The AFP authorised the nbnTM staffer's actions.

Later, in defense of the staffer's actions, nbnTM corporate communications executive Karina Keisler Tweeted that the company's staffer was acting with the authorisation, and under the instruction, of AFP officers.

In response to discussions with the ALP's lawyers, the AFP told Paul Galbally the photographs were deleted, except for a USB key now under seal with the rest of the documents (after Senator Conroy claimed parliamentary privilege over them).

Galbally's letter continues:

“I would be grateful if you could advise me why Mr S. disseminated the documents when a clear claim for privilege had been made and acknowledged by the officers present. Further, under whose authority did he take such action?”

We're certain there's more to come in this story. ®

Bootnote: The Australian reports, again paywalled, that two nbnTM staff have been stood down by the company following the raids.

If the company has based its decision on information held in the documents now sealed and probably tainted as evidence, it's an astonishing action in the middle of an election campaign. Not only is it politically cloth-eared, it's not going to draw nbnTM any thanks from a government hoping for re-election.

The decision to shove staffers out the door makes sure that there are two aggrieved people with good reason to spill more beans during the campaign. ®

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