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'Police Watergate' set to rock hierarchy

High Court Judge Virginia Bell is about to be dragged into the New South Wales Police bugging scandal.

State Parliament is set to vote on whether to approach Governor David Hurley for copies of listening device warrants signed by Judge Bell, when she was a Supreme Court justice.

It is certainly set to rock the police hierarchy right up to the ranks of Commissioner, and deputy commissioner - sending shockwaves through the judiciary.

The NSW Upper House is seeking the Governor's approval for a parliamentary inquiry to examine warrants signed by High Court Judge Virginia Bell, and former NSW Attorney General John Dowd when they were both on the bench of the NSW Supreme Court.

High Court Judge Virginia Bell (pictured) is about to be dragged into the New South Wales Police bugging scandal. Credit: AAP

The warrants allowed NSW internal affairs police to secretly record the conversations of more than 100 police officers and two civilians, including a journalist, who were not suspected of committing any crimes.

NSW's very own Watergate

This saga has become known as the 'police bugging scandal', and the New South Wales version of Watergate – the saga that the Baird coalition government is determined to bury.

A NSW Parliamentary inquiry, with the support of Labor, the Greens and Shooters Party, is about to lift the lid on years of secrecy.

In the lead-up to the 2011 state election, then shadow Police Minister Mike Gallacher vowed to shine a bright light on how illegal warrants were issued against more than 100 honest police officers, including the current Deputy Commissioner Nick Kaldas.

The dodgy operations were codenamed Mascot and Florida, and executed in an atmosphere of post Wood Royal Commission paranoia about police and their associates.

Current Police Commissioner Andrew Scipione was working at the Special Crimes and Internal Affairs unit as the secret bugging operation continued. Photo: AAP

Working with the NSW Crime Commission, internal affairs police somehow convinced Supreme Court judges to sanction the recording of conversations of police under no suspicion of any indictable offence.

It was basically a fishing expedition, casting a wide net that would end up entangling many innocent people who have been dealing with the stress of these unjustified/non-existent suspicions ever since.

Current Police Commissioner Andrew Scipione and deputy Catherine Burn were working at the Special Crimes and Internal Affairs unit as the secret bugging operation continued.

On February 13, 2011, six weeks before he became police minister, Gallacher told 7News: "We've never got the answers - and at the end of the day people are left wondering because it's in a secretive world."

"The public needs to know that everything is being done to maintain levels of integrity and accountability."

Former police minister Mike Gallacher said a parliamentary probe would "crucify peoples' reputations". Photo: AAP

Gallacher was referring to the refusal of his successor to release the findings of Strike Force Emblems – which investigated operations Mascot and Florida. This failure was in spite of assurances by former Police Commissioner Ken Moroney.

At one stage Tony Abbott, in opposition, wrote to one of the bugging victims and said: “I'm shocked that any Australian police force could get away with tapping a journalist's phone (unless that journo is suspected of a crime) and a little surprised that this issue has not been run hard and big by the State Opposition and the media."

In Government, Gallacher joined then Premier Barry O’Farrell in ordering an investigation into the inadequacies and injustices of Strike Force Emblems.

But by November 2012, barely 18 months after Gallacher’s pre-election pledge for transparency, he was refusing to release the findings of an investigation into Strike Force Emblems by Police Integrity Commission Inspector David Levine.

"To say that Mr Levine has been critical of this Emblems investigation would be an understatement," Mr Gallacher said, but still he refused to publicly release Mr Levine's review of the report.

The whole mess was then referred to the NSW Ombudsman for yet another investigation, codenamed Prospect.

In almost two years of secret inquisition the Ombudsman’s office has spent much of its time focusing on “leaks to the media.”

That was enough for Greens upper house MP, David Shoebridge and he successfully led calls for a parliamentary investigation.

“Warrants were issued naming scores of people,” Shoebridge told the Legislative Council.

“They were giving warrants against scores of people who were not even named in the affidavits that are put before the judges when they are signing off on warrants.

“It was not even possible to match the name on the warrants to a single shred of evidence in the affidavits that had been presented to the courts, but they are stamped, they are stamped, and they are stamped.

“Wiretaps and intrusive covert surveillances are operating as a result of that. That is what needs to be the subject of serious public and open investigation.”

Greens MP David Shoebridge said there had been a "complete gag" over the ombudsman's inquiries. Photo:

So now we have an MP's investigation into the investigation of an investigation into two allegedly illegal investigations. That’s right – the determination to maintain secrecy in the governing of this state has descended into a maddening farce.

The only shred of light is promised by the privilege of parliament, and if the Ombudsman Bruce Barbour does not accept an invitation to attend the upper house inquiry he will be ordered to.

Far from delivering on his pre-election pledge for openness, Gallacher became the new chief architect of efforts to bury the detail of Strike Force Emblems.

He is now a backbencher, awaiting the findings of the Independent Commission Against Corruption into his alleged involvement with illegal campaign donations.

But his ostensible self-relegation to the sidelines has not stopped him from condemning renewed efforts to expose the police bugging scandal once and for all.

Not surprisingly he spoke against the motion for the parliamentary inquiry.

“The Greens have done their utmost to try to suggest that I gave a commitment to release the completed report. There is a damn good reason why I did not and why I would never agree to it.”

“I never would agree for the simple reason that this internal investigation is making serious allegations—potentially the most serious—involving senior detectives from crime squads dating back many years.”

“I have seen and been involved in past internal investigations; they are quite clear cut in laying out exactly the allegations against individual officers and the recommendations that flow from them.

“It was my view, which I continue to hold, that because of the serious nature of the allegations, the numbers of police involved, the history and the way in which an officer went about covert operations using listening devices, an open judicial inquiry was not the safe way to proceed with this investigation.”

Shoebridge was in no danger of backing down, attacking the sluggishness of the Ombudsman’s Operation Prospect.

“Why is it delayed for two years? Well, it probably takes two years to run to ground every whistle blower you can, to seek to uncover who had the temerity to demand some public accountability and an end to the secrecy in New South Wales. It is not only urgent and proper; it is the job of the Parliament to shine light where nobody else is willing to do it.”

Morning news break - November 19