With the Craig Thomson case in court again this week, Peter Wicks reports on the magistrate lashing News Ltd's coverage and gives his own view on Thomson's guilt or innocence.

PressScrum

I AM ALWAYS asked my opinion on what has happened with the HSU and in particular my thoughts on Craig Thomson's guilt or innocence.

Given Thomson's matter was once again in court earlier this week, with reports on what happened varying despite it amounting to nothing in the end, I thought it may be an appropriate time seeing as I have not given my opinion thus far.

Bear in mind, this is only my opinion and is based on what I have seen and heard so far on the matter.

Firstly, I don't believe that Craig has rorted Health Services Union members.

As pointed out in the Financial Review the other day, even with some of the charges that involve living away from home expenses while away on business the total amount of equates to approximately $150 a week for the time he was union secretary. Not quite the hundreds of thousands of dollars some in the mainstream media and Coalition would have us believe.

When it comes to the brothels, it will probably come as no surprise to you that I am of the impression Craig has been set up. My reasoning is that given the history of HSU factional brawling and tactics used in the past with regards to brothels, and the threats allegedly made to "set people up" with prostitutes, it seems highly likely that those who set out to destroy him would go down that route.

I have also considered that the original evidence produced by Fairfax in relation to credit card slips has all been quashed and is not considered evidence any longer. In fact, despite years of searching for further evidence ‒ including serving subpoenas on countless brothels all over the country ‒ so far, nothing has surfaced.

The Fairfax
The Fairfax "evidence" has seemingly
been totally discarded

What this allegation is based on appears to be credit card statements for a credit card for which everybody working within a union in the midst of a factional battle had access to the details. Anybody who has ever paid for something on the phone or online with a credit card can tell you how easy it is to make something appear on a statement.

Given that one of these supposed brothel visits occurred in Sydney while Craig was in Perth makes the allegations look even more like they have been concocted. Evidence for that alleged brothel visit is highly circumstantial to say the least, given it is only sourced from a credit card statement, whereas Thomson has his alibi verified by a hotel booking and Qantas boarding passes.

As for all of the other charges, I believe the vast majority of these are valid work expenses for expenses incurred whilst away from home on business. I also believe that spousal travel is acceptable where there are work events being held and someone who spends a lot of time away from home in their work should not be dragged through court to explain why spending time with their wife was important. These were not luxury holidays, as some would have us believe.

The question with the other charges related to credit card expenditure are a matter of whether Craig had authorisation to use the card as he saw fit or not. That will be determined by the court and I don't really have an opinion on whether that is true or not although I have not seen any guidelines for credit card usage in the HSU rules for the period Thomson was secretary.

What I do think Thomson may have done is put the odd small personal expense on the Union card. I don't mean things like holidays and jewellery as Thomson’s accuser Kathy Jackson appears to have done, I mean things like coming home late at night from a work function, stopping for fuel in the company car and, when discovering you have no cash on you, putting a packet of smokes on the card when you pay for fuel — that type of thing.

Whilst this may be technically out of order, it is usually overlooked and shrugged off as anybody who meets this many people and travels this much in their job always incurs work expenses out of their own pocket that they don't get back or obtain receipts for. These would include things like occasional coffees or a round of drinks, parking meters which back then did not accept credit cards or give receipts, road tolls which back then were predominantly paid with change from the car ashtray, the list goes on... My point being that these things tend to balance out with the odd pack of smokes, chewing gum or ice-cream.

Again, this is just my opinion and I could be way off the mark.

The reason, I assume, Craig won't plead guilty to these charges is because he believes he had authority to use the card. In fact, this is the argument being put forward by his lawyers.

One reason he would not be bothering to get bogged down in disputing facts in the case is that each fact would cost a fortune to dispute with added witnesses, experts, court costs and lawyers bills — and we know lawyers don't come cheap. As you can imagine, Craig isn't exactly flush with funds right now.

Craig, as most would be aware, did not succeed in his bid to be re-elected as an Independent MP in the seat of Dobell on September 7.

Therefore Craig has suddenly found himself without an income and facing mounting legal costs that seem to have no end in sight.

Some sections of the main stream media have been predictable in their reporting of events involving the case.

The Australian on 10 September was fairly representative of how the media has been portraying the Thomson case.

The Australian's Pia Akerman (Image via Twitter)

In her opening paragraph, Pia Akerman stated:

'Ousted MP Craig Thomson will not dispute specific facts of the allegations that he used union credit cards to pay for escort services and pornographic movies, a court has heard.'

However, Thomson's barrister, former Supreme Court judge Greg James QC, has clearly stated that Craig not disputing the facts was:

"... not an admission to allegations."

Even in her own report, Pia Akerman says for those who made it to the bottom of her piece about the Magistrate Charlie Rozencwajg not giving access to the disputed facts to reporters.

'Mr Rozencwajg refused to grant reporters access to the preliminary list of undisputed facts.'

So what, then, does she base her opening paragraph on?

What I didn't find any coverage, commentary, nor reporting on was the Magistrates opening remarks. This is hardly surprising, though, given the Magistrate was highly critical of the reporting of News Ltd's Pia Akerman and Ean Higgins in their report the hearing of the matter the previous week.

The Magistrate was critical as he felt the reporting in The Australian article misinterpreted the events and had given an inaccurate portrayal of the proceedings.

Yesterday, I approached Pia Akerman for comment on this by phone.

Ms Akerman refused to go into the matter, only saying that her interpretation of the Magistrates comments were that he had not liked the headline and then referred me to her editor, saying she would pass my query on to that person for comment.

I would be comfortable assuming that the magistrate knows the difference between a headline and an article.

Ean Higgins (Image via McGill Publications)

Despite asking for a comment from her editor, I have yet to receive a response, although yesterday afternoon I received a written response from Ms Akerman that simply stated.

Hi Peter,

My comment is simply as I said on the phone: I stand by the story.

Regards,

Pia Akerman
Journalist
The Australian

It is great that Akerman stands behind her story, however the magistrate overseeing the matter certainly doesn't appear to think a great deal of it given his comments.

In regards to the headline that boldly states:

'Court rejects Craig Thomson's denials'

This is a completely false, as there were no denials from Thomson or his defence for the court to reject.

In fact, Magistrate Rozencwajg stated that the headline was:

'...completely at odds with the facts.'

Another example of the story being at odds with the facts was this gem:

'Mr Thomson, now an independent candidate for the NSW central coast seat of Dobell after he was suspended from the Labor Party, is facing 173 criminal charges over allegations he misused hundreds of thousands of dollars of union funds.'

Hundreds of thousands of dollars? Really?

In fact, the total of all the charges is just a little over $28,000 in total.

Maybe next time The Australian should try for millions, billions, or trillions, just to make a really compelling story, 

Greg James, AM QC
(Image via Frederick Jordan Chambers)

In fact the magistrate was reportedly so unimpressed with the reporting he not only was critical of it in open court, he went a step further.

According to Greg James, QC – who represents Thomson – the magistrate said in open court that he has referred the article in The Australian to the executive officer of the court for possible charges of contempt of court. We cannot independently confirm this until we see the transcript of the relevant session of court, which the court officer's tells us should be available early next week.

[EDITORS NOTE: 05/12/2013: NOTE, AS SUBSEQUENTLY REPORTED, A SUBSEQUENT AUDIO RECORDING OF THE COURT PROCEEDINGS APPLIED, PAID FOR AND OBTAINED BY IA SHOWED THE MAGISTRATE HAD REFERRED THE MATTER TO THE COURTS AUSTRALIAN'S EDITOR ON THE BASIS OF MULTIPLE FACTUAL ERRORS IN THE REPORT BY PIA AKERMAN AND EAN HIGGINS THE MAGISTRATE ALSO MENTIONED REFERRING THE MATTER TO THE AUSTRALIAN PRESS COUNCIL AND NOT FOR CONTEMPT OF COURT. WE APOLOGISE FOR THIS ERROR TO ANY AND ALL CONCERNED OR AFFECTED, INCLUDING OF COURSE PIA AKERMAN AND EAN HIGGINS.]

Magistrate Rozencwajg also saved criticism for the prosecution, querying why there had been a need for a court mention in the week of the election.

The prosecution, as you may remember, from my article on the matter, requested a mention last week. When it was granted, nothing new was introduced and nothing was gained or learned. What it did do, however, was waste the court's time, taxpayers' and Craig Thomson's money, and give The Australian a chance to bash Thomson yet again in the week leading up to the election.

In my article last week, I suggested that it seemed as though the whole court mention was set up to give News Ltd a story. Now that theory seems even more plausible.

It would seem to me, from his words and actions, that Magistrate Charlie Rozencwajg doesn't like being used as a media and political puppet and appears to be pulling them into line. Who can blame him?

Where this saga will end up is anybody's guess. So far the prosecution have managed to drag out the matter past the election without offering any real evidence to support their case.

Now that there is no real political mileage to be gained in pursuing the matter, I wonder if the Coalition will continue to think it is worthwhile to spend millions of taxpayer dollars, thousands of police hours and waste endless court time, chasing less than $30,000.

Whether you think Thomson is innocent or not, one thing is for sure: Thomson has been more than punished for anything he may have done. He has effectively been put in stocks in the city square and been left there for the public to hurl things at. No matter how this case turns out, he will spend many years as the punch line in a joke about sex workers.

ThomsonZoe
Craig Thomson and his wife Zoe: put through the ringer.

Given his lack of income, as of Saturday, those of you who still believe Thomson should have an adequate defence against the Coalitions prosecution machine can still donate to Thomson's legal fighting fund via the link below:

It is my opinion that if this was really about retrieving stolen union funds and not a political witch-hunt, then we should be seeing just as much focus and just as many investigation hours dedicated to looking into Kathy Jackson and her time controlling the HSU number 3 branch. We have already seen evidence uncovered of apparent spending of Union members money that makes Thomson's matter pale in insignificance; details of this evidence may be found on the Wixxyleaks Jacksonville resource page.

For those of you who take in interest in this case, I would recommend taking anything is read in the mainstream media, particularly The Australian with a grain of salt the size of the rock of Gibraltar.

I will continue to report on events to do with the case as they develop.

People after all deserve the truth.

Editor's note (16 September 2013, 7.30pm): To clarify, at date of publication, the executive officer told the author no referral had been received by her on the contempt of court allegation, but that she could not confirm what was said in court until the transcript was received. Once again, we are relying for our information about what was said in court from an eminent Queen's Counsel, Greg James, someone we regard as a very reliable source. We will issue a further update once the transcript is received.

CORRECTION: (2 December 2013, 8.45am): A recording of the court case showed that the magistrate had referred the article for misleading and incorrect facts to the court's strategic communication's officer for referral to the editor of The Australian and potentially the Australian Press Council, not for contempt of court. IA and the author sincerely apologise for this error.

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