Rogue councillors’ worst nightmare has arrived
ROGUE councillors have been put on notice they will be zeroed in on from Monday by a powerful new investigative body led by a seasoned organised crime specialist.
Kathleen Florian will lead a team of ex-detectives, investigators and financial experts in her new Independent Assessor role examining suspect behaviour by council politicians.
She'll hit the ground running, with 60 cases to be handed to over by both the Crime and Corruption Commission and Local Government Department upon starting work next week.
While Florian previously investigated hardened criminals, including Italian crime gangs and bikies, she insists she does not want her office to be feared - at least by honest politicians.
In an exclusive interview with The Sunday Mail ahead of officially taking up the new role, Florian agrees that fear of the new body in charge of examining everything from bad behaviour to misconduct and corruption was a strong motivator for councillors to avoid trouble.
"I don't want the office to be feared by people who are just trying to do the right thing," Florian, speaking from the newly opened Albert St CBD office, said.
"However, for councillors who would commit misconduct, we will be moving to hold them to account, for the benefit of the community but also for the benefit of the other councillors who are genuinely trying to do the right thing."
It's a warning that councillors would be wise to heed: Florian is a barrister of 26 years who spent six years at the Crime and Corruption Commission up until mid-last year.
Her roles included executive director of crime at the CCC, assistant commissioner of its misconduct section and she previously headed the Australian Crime Commission's Queensland operations.
Florian comes with decades of experience
Former colleagues say Florian is "not to be underestimated."
She's rated as a tough investigator with experience grilling people in the CCC's "star chamber" coercive hearings.
High profile cases include the 2009 Operation Wickenby, in which 12 people were charged over a $10 million offshore tax evasion and money laundering scheme.
Florian has also worked on investigations into outlaw motorcycle gangs and drug trafficking syndicates.
That includes an operation that busted open a drug lab at Doggett St, Newstead in which 178kg of pure amphetamine with a street value of $284 million was seized in 1995.
At the time, Florian was with the precursor to the Australian Crime Commission and was heavily involved in the operation.
Syndicate leader and amphetimine cook Allan Barrow was later jailed for 20 years in the Queensland Supreme Court in Brisbane.
The court was told Barrow, a former university science student, helped produce amphetamines in a quantity never before seized by any world law enforcement agency.
It was alleged in court the drugs were distrubuted by associates of the Hells Angels.
Florian says she has the "capacity to hold people to account" but also "the maturity and balance to ensure we have a local government sector that's growing and able to operate effectively."
Team to include ex-detectives
Her team will includes ex-cops, among them former CCC detectives and investigators. Those under their glare may wish to avoid the small interview room with a single white table in the Level 13 offices, but will have no choice but to attend.
The Office of the Independent Assessor has the power to require documents to be produced, compel councillors to participate in an interview and conduct search warrants on properties.
It will be the landing pad for local government complaints transferred from either the CCC, local government department, a council official or directly from a council whistleblower.
The OIA will also has the power to instigate its own investigations.
Such probes could stem from media reports about misconduct allegations against a councillor, or about suspicions of wrongdoing uncovered in the course of an unrelated OIA investigation.
Inappropriate conduct can be sent back to the council to deal with.
It will probe more serious misconduct claims, such as failing to declare a conflict of interest.
If it involves corruption, it will be sent to the CCC, but can also be investigated by her office.
The new regime seeks to put an end to complaints slipping through the cracks and follows a string of arrests stemming from the CCC's Operation Belcarra probe into the 2016 council elections and allegations of development favours for political donors.
High profile current and former mayors are now facing court, including Andrew Antoniolli and Paul Pisasale in Ipswich and Logan mayor Luke Smith.
Antoniolli is on fraud charges, Pisasale is facing allegations of corruption, fraud and perjury, and Smith is on corruption and perjury charges.
All have declared they will fight the charges and deny wrongdoing.
Florian said her focus would include cases where a councillor makes no real attempt to declare and work through a conflict of interest or how it should be dealt with.
"There is a great opportunity to strengthen the trust in the local government sector that may have been tainted a bit in the past couple of years and all these measures taken together are really calculated to do that," she said.
Assessment of wrongdoing can lead to a councillor being prosecuted before the new Councillor Conduct Tribunal, referred to the CCC, or in the case of inappropriate conduct, the complaint being referred back to the local government for action.
Sanctions for misbehaviour have been ramped up and repeat offenders can face suspension.
The new laws also make vexatious and frivolous complaints an offence and provide protection from reprisal for council staff who make misconduct complaints against a councillor.
Local Government Minister Stirling Hinchliffe said the Independent Assessor had the power to investigate and determine geunine complaints more effectively while being able to quickly dismiss vexatious complaints.
"This is the start of a new era of accountability, integrity and transparency as we rebuild the community's faith and trust in local government," he said.