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Nicola Gobbo: special investigator will examine whether 'Lawyer X' or Victoria police committed crimes

Nino Bucci
·6-min read

The Victorian government will appoint a special investigator to examine whether crimes were committed by current or former police officers and the gangland lawyer Nicola Gobbo.

The recommendation was among 111 contained in the final report of the royal commission into police informants, which was tabled in state parliament on Monday.

The force’s handling of Gobbo – known as ‘Lawyer X’ – during the gangland war sparked the royal commission, which was announced almost two years ago.

Related: Lawyer X: how Victoria police got it 'profoundly wrong' with informant Nicola Gobbo

Commissioner Margaret McMurdo found 1,011 people had convictions or findings of guilt that may have been affected by the conduct of Gobbo and Victoria police.

She also recommended the establishment of an independent oversight model for dealing with human sources, and again rebuked police for their tardiness in responding to the commission, including producing some documents only three days before the final report was due.

Another recommendation addressed potentially more problematic conduct – there were 11 human source files relating to other people with potential legal obligations of confidentiality or privilege which police did not provide to the commission, and McMurdo said the government should appoint someone who was suitably qualified to review their contents.

“The conduct of Ms Gobbo and Victoria Police had wide-ranging detrimental consequences, not least the heavy financial impost on the Victorian people of this inquiry and the considerable litigation arising from it,” McMurdo wrote in her closing remarks.

“The commission’s recommendations for future reforms aim to ensure the events that led to this commission will not be repeated. But even the best systems can be undermined by deliberate or grossly negligent conduct.”

Related: Deeper, wider, longer: lawyer X inquiry reveals corruption of justice system | Richard Ackland

The commission received more than 155,000 documents and held 129 days of public and private hearings.

The attorney general, Jill Hennessy, said the government would accept all recommendations in the more than 1,000-page final report.

Gobbo was first registered as a human source in 1995. But the commission largely examined the period after she was again registered in 2005, while working as a barrister for a collection of organised crime figures.

Two men, Faruk Orman and Zlate Cvetanovski, have already been acquitted because of the involvement of Gobbo in securing their convictions.

Several other appeals relating to Gobbo’s conduct have been filed.

The commission reviewed 1,156 potentially affected cases, identified as those where the conduct of Gobbo or police could have caused someone to be convicted in circumstances where there was a substantial miscarriage of justice.

The 1,011 people who may have been affected by this conduct included those who were not represented by an independent lawyer acting in their best interests and those who may have been affected by Gobbo’s conflicts of interest or tainted evidence arising from her conduct.

The cases include those when she was acting as the person’s lawyer, and cases where she was not, such as where the person was a co-accused of one of her clients.

McMurdo found that 887 people were potentially affected in a broad way, as they were represented by Gobbo between 1998 and 2013 and it was not disclosed to them that she was as a human source.

A second group of 124 people are potentially affected in a more specific way, McMurdo found, as Gobbo may have directly impacted their cases.

The use of Gobbo as a police informant essentially breached two pillars of the criminal justice system: the legal obligations of client confidentiality and privilege, and the duty to disclose all material that is relevant, or potentially relevant, to an accused person’s case.

But the way in which individual cases were potentially tainted was complex. McMurdo found that the most problematic cases had their genesis in the 2000s, as Victoria police struggled to control the gangland war which claimed about 40 lives.

The Purana task force was formed to quell the violence, and its investigators pursued a strategy of using informers to “roll”: give evidence against their associates.

Enter Gobbo, who was a friend and lawyer to many of the key players, including Tony Mokbel and Carl Williams.

In the case of Mr McGrath*, she convinced her client to give evidence against his associates. That in itself was not improper, but she commented on and changed his statement to assist police, without taking instructions from him, strengthening the case against his associates. McGrath did not know she was working for the police.

McGrath’s evidence led to the prosecution of Mr Thomas*. Gobbo then acted as Thomas’ lawyer. She encouraged Thomas to roll, then advised police about how to approach him and edited his statements.

Thomas made many statements to police implicating others in crime, including Faruk Orman.

Orman was later charged with murder and was jailed for 20 years in 2009. He was released in July last year, the first person to have their conviction overturned as a result of the saga.

McMurdo found that perhaps “the most brazen example” of Gobbo’s conduct came in relation to Mr Cooper*, a drug cook for the Mokbel crime syndicate, in 2005.

Gobbo had known Cooper since 2002, and was his lawyer, friend and confidant. She was also fairly sure he was in love with her.

She told Victoria Police he had a drug laboratory in Strathmore, leading to his arrest.

Police encouraged him to roll, and Gobbo, acting as his lawyer, advised him that he should agree.

Cooper made more than 40 statements to police, including acting as a witness against Cvetanovski, who spent more than 11 years in prison after being convicted of drug offences before he was released in October.

Gobbo was also involved in foiling the Tomato Tins drug syndicate, linked to alleged mafia figure Pasquale Barbaro, which resulted in the convictions of 32 people – at least 10 of whom she represented.

McMurdo said she decided against recommending criminal charges in the report, despite the submissions of counsel assisting the commission, because the commission did not have judicial power, and wanted to avoid the risk of unfairly prejudicing possible future investigations or trials.

Current police could be subject to misconduct findings, as well as criminal charges, McMurdo said.

If the special investigator finds there is evidence to support criminal charges, they will prepare a brief for the Victorian DPP to determine whether it is in the public interest to prosecute.

“Even if there is sufficient evidence to bring charges, the DPP’s decision may be difficult. These events occurred long ago,” McMurdo found.

“Records may be incomplete and memories may have faded. Ms Gobbo was encouraged in her behaviour by police and now lives in fear of being murdered.

“The current and former officers acted within what Victoria police accepts was a failed system and many, perhaps all, have had otherwise exemplary careers serving the public good. If the DPP determines that it is in the public interest to prosecute, those charged will receive a fair trial according to law, unlike those whose trials were corrupted by their conduct.”

*Pseudonyms applied by the royal commission