Media warned over Lehrmann inquiry

R v Lehrmann
Shane Drumgold, the chief prosecutor in the board of inquiry into the handling of the prosecution Bruce Lehrmann, gave further evidence on Wednesday . Picture: NCA NewsWire / Martin Ollman

The man conducting a high profile inquiry into the trial of former Liberal staffer Bruce Lehrmann has flagged closing the hearing to the public amid frustration over reporting of the probe.

Chair Walter Sofronoff KC delivered a warning on Wednesday to several media outlets who he said had “cherry picked” salacious statements from documents tendered to the inquiry.

The retired judge said public hearings would continue for the time being with “some trepidation”.

“My trust has been damaged today,” he said. “It will now take very little more for me to start going about my work in a different way”.

The board of inquiry was established to examine how criminal justice agencies handled the prosecution of Bruce Lehrmann.

Mr Lehrmann pleaded not guilty to one charge of sexually assaulting his former colleague Brittany Higgins before the trial was aborted due to jury misconduct.

He has continually denied the allegation and the DPP declined to pursue a second trial due to concerns over Ms Higgins’ mental health and dropped the charge.

The ACT Director of Public Prosecution Shane Drumgold told the inquiry on Wednesday that a political conspiracy was “possible, if not probable” in the lead up to the trial.

Director of Public Prosecutions Shane Drumgold appears at the inquiry for a third day.
Director of Public Prosecutions Shane Drumgold appeared at the inquiry for a third day of questioning.

“I felt there was enough evidence there to justify an inquiry,” he said.

His remarks were in reference to a letter he wrote to ACT chief police officer Neil Gaughan which called for an inquiry into police and political conduct during the investigation and trial.

Mr Drumgold told the hearing a series of “strange events” led him to the view there had been federal interference in proceedings.

“The Commonwealth were involved in it early, I knew that … at least Miss Higgins was concerned about political interference,” he said.

“I found out I was going to receive a briefing from the federal commissioner, not from ACT policing.

“From that point on there was pressure. I felt the plan may have been if they can convince me to give them the imprimatur not to charge then a political matter would go away.

CANBERRA, AUSTRALIA - NCA NewsWire Photos - MAY 10, 2023: ACT Director of Public Prosecutions Shane Drumgold SC enters the Bruce Lehrmann Inquiry at the ACT Civil and Administrative Tribunal. Picture: NCA NewsWire/ Dylan Robinson
Mr Drumgold told the hearing a political conspiracy was ‘probable’. Picture: NCA NewsWire/ Dylan Robinson

“That was my first presumption and then as time went on, I felt their interest aligned with an unsuccessful prosecution. That was my fear.”

Counsel assisting the inquiry, Erin Longbottom KC, asked Mr Drumgold why he asked police to have no further contact with defence or prosecution witnesses in the scathing letter.

The DPP said he had Liberal senators Linda Reynolds and Michaelia Cash, both past employers of Ms Higgins, in mind.

“I'm looking at the circumstantial strands … enthusiastic engagement by a senator … an unprecedented passion that a number of police held that this matter shouldn’t proceed,” Mr Drumgold told the inquiry.

“There were just enough circumstantial strands in my mind to at least justify investigation into them.”

During the trial in October last year, Senator Reynolds confirmed she had sought access to transcripts of proceedings from Mr Lehrmann’s barrister, Steven Whybrow SC.

Counsel assisting Erin Longbottom at the third day of the inquiry
Counsel assisting Erin Longbottom asked about Mr Drumgold’s concerns.

Senator Reynolds’ partner also watched the trial from the court’s public gallery before she was called as a witness.

Mr Drumgold has accused police of losing their objectivity over the course of the investigation and trial, and feeding “inaccurate information” in hopes of derailing the case.

Asked why he was so concerned about police’s motivations when communicating with the defence it would be inadmissable in court, Mr Drumgold said he was not alone in his view.

The concern was shared by the deputy commissioner in the ACT Police, who had also warned officers against speaking with Mr Lehrmann’s barristers, the inquiry was told.

Mr Drumgold denied his perception had affected his own objectivity.

The inquiry continues.