The Australian Federal Police has ordered an internal review into its raid on Seven West Media and has “counselled” a senior officer who botched search warrant documents.
But despite apologising and conceding errors had been made in last week’s raid, the AFP said it obtained enough evidence to continue its investigations under the Proceeds of Crime Act.
The AFP is investigating convicted drug trafficker Schapelle Corby’s dealings with Seven, amid suggestions the Corby family was negotiating a paid interview with the television network.
Seven West Media, the owner of The West Australian, has confirmed it has been in talks with Corby but insists no agreement has been reached.
As revealed in The West Australian this week, Corby had been offered about $500,000 for an interview, well below the $3 million being speculated.
AFP deputy commissioner of crime operations Michael Phelan said the “scuttlebutt” surrounding Corby’s release on parole from a Bali jail on February 10, and the fact that she had been whisked away to a villa, led the AFP to “reasonably assume” she had agreed to an exclusive interview.
Mr Phelan, who held a press conference at the AFP’s Canberra headquarters this morning, said it was “incumbent” on the AFP to ensure Corby did not profit from her crime. He said it was a “time-critical” manner because the AFP feared money would be sent beyond Australia’s jurisdiction.
He repeatedly stressed that Seven had been co-operative in handing over documents requested by the AFP but on Monday evening investigators felt not all the relevant material had been produced.
“We believe we had no alternative at that time other than to do those search warrants,” Mr Phelan said.
“We do concede, however, though during the execution of the search warrants there was an administrative error that occurred on one of the particular orders that accompanies the search warrant.”
In documents to the Magistrate's Court, the AFP had accused Seven’s lawyer Justine Munsie of committing a crime.
Mr Phelan said this error had been caused by using a “pro forma” document from another unrelated matter.
“What they failed to do was omit that particular paragraph,” Mr Phelan said.
“That’s all it was.
“It did say in there that it referred to a criminal offence in the warrant. Of course when you go for a warrant there is no criminal offence.
“Having said that though it is a mistake and it is a mistake the AFP regrets and we sincerely apologise for any inconvenience, particularly to the individuals who may have thought that we as a result of their name being on the top as the occupier of the premises that we in any way inferred they had committed any criminal activity.
“The material relied upon to get the search warrants does not refer to any allegations at all of criminality by Channel 7 or its employees.
"Channel 7 have not committed any offences, as I’ve said before, in wanting to interview convicted criminals.
“As a matter of fact whether you pay for it is a matter for Channel 7 and other media outlets. It is just that the criminals themselves who are convicted in the accordance of the Act can’t profit themselves from it and that’s all the AFP is doing in this case.”
Towards the end of a 35-minute press conference, Seven’s commercial director Bruce McWilliam took the unusual step of asking the Deputy Commissioner a series of questions, including whether the AFP intended asking for more documents.
Mr McWilliam told Mr Whelan that the document the AFP cited as having justified the raid was an unsigned draft agreement with Corby when the AFP’s original demands for documents was only for agreements.
Mr McWilliam asked Mr Phelan: "Are you going to do another raid or are you just going to ask for it?"
Mr Phelan replied: “I tend not to telegraph when we are going to do search warrants."
Earlier, when Mr Phelan was asked by journalists whether anyone had been disciplined for botching the search warrant documents, he said the officer in question had been “counselled”.
Mr Phelan said the AFP’s legal advice was that the bungling of the warrant did not invalidate the search and that the material seized could still be used as part of its investigation.
Mr Phelan also defended the need to use a large number of police in the raid and the fact that many of them were armed.
He said they had to search five commercial premises and there were documents and a large number of forensics and IT experts were required to search for computers and documents.
He said police were also required to carry their guns while on operational duties.
“What might appear heavy-handed (and) over-the-top is nothing more than run-of-the-mill investigative processes,” Mr Phelan said.
Under the Proceeds of Crime Act, it is not an offence for criminals to accept money for an interview, nor is it an offence for a news organisation to strike such an agreement. But under the Act, the AFP can apply to a court to seize the money.
Mr Phelan denied the AFP’s investigation into Seven’s dealings with Corby were an interference with the freedom of speech.
“Criminals can tell their stories if they like but its clear that they cannot profit from it,” he said.
Mr Phelan said the AFP was interested in any payments going to the Corby family, including Schapelle’s sister Mercedes, because these payments may have been used to indirectly benefit Schapelle.
Seven has already acknowledged striking a $25,000 agreement with Mercedes Corny for a New Idea interview.
Mr Phelan said the “buck stops with me” when asked who authorised the raid.
He said Commissioner Tony Negus knew the search was going to be conducted before it occurred and Justice Minister Michael Keenan’s office was told the morning of the raids.
“These are operational matters for the police,” he said.
Asked why, if Seven had been co-operative, there had been a need for the raid, he answered: “If the information we were after had been provided, we would not have had to do the search warrants.”
Mr Phelan said he had no problem with Seven filming the raid, despite officers demanding cameras be turned off on Tuesday.
“I am fully confident that our officers acted in an extremely professional manner while they did the search,” he said.
Asked if it would have been more prudent to ask Seven to produce these documents rather than conduct a raid, Mr Phelan replied “No”.
He said the material that had been obtained through Seven’s co-operation had opened up further lines of inquiry.
“It’s quite reasonable for a search warrant looking for material to be different to an original request that has been made,” he said.
Outside the AFP headquarters after the press conference, Mr McWilliam said Seven would pursue the matter in the Federal Court on Monday to demand the search warrant be set aside.
He said Seven would ask the AFP to reveal its legal advice showing the raid was valid despite the errors.
“We’re grateful they have apologised and the people who were named in the letter or affidavit to the magistrate of having committed criminal offences are obviously happy that is going to be corrected,” Mr McWilliam said.
“The problem is when they make such a basic error as that you wonder what else is wrong because bear in mind we haven’t seen the underlying material that was the basis for the magistrate to think it was appropriate to give them the search warrant.
“What [Mr Phelan] said was that they didn’t suspect Channel 7 of committing a criminal offence, he was happy for us to have the interview and he was happy if the interview was paid for, he just wanted the money if it went to the Corbys but he vacillated between saying the Corbys and Schapelle Corby.”
Mr McWilliam said the police should have simply requested the extra documents they wanted rather than have “34 of their best to strap on their holsters” and storm into Seven West Media’s offices.
“We just don’t see why they didn’t ask rather than besmirching people’s reputations,” he said.
Mr McWilliam said no agreement had been done with the Corbys to sell their story but if a “reasonable fee” was asked for that would be matter of negotiation.
He said the only signed agreement was with Mercedes Corby to use her best endeavours to arrange an interview.
“You’ve heard the deputy commissioner say there is nothing wrong paying it, he just wants his share of it,” he said.
“We haven’t done a deal. All the media outlets are after her.”
On Friday, Attorney-General George Brandis said: “This is a police operation and quite properly a matter for the AFP. However I am concerned at how it appears to have been handled and I will be seeking to establish, how this error was apparently made by the AFP.”