Sick note! Dr Ken Levy uses illness defence to escape action by PCMC

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Queensland's Parliamentary Ethics Committee refuses to hold controversial former corruption body boss Dr Ken Levy to account for intentionally misleading Parliament, despite overwhelming evidence he did. Alex McKean reports.

IT IS a curious phenomenon that individuals who are about to be called to account for their actions before courts, tribunals, royal commissions, or parliamentary committees, often appear to develop a serious illness just as the hammer is about to fall.

It used to be said that the last refuge of a scoundrel was politics. This may be true, but there is a time-honoured tradition of scoundrels, whether politicians or otherwise, attempting to seek refuge by claiming illness, when they are finally to be made accountable.

Facebook is currently awash with stories about Cardinal Pell’s claims that illness will prevent him from returning to Australia from the Vatican to face the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. Other notable examples of the phenomenon include notorious con-men Alan Bond and Christopher Skase.

The illness defence has recently been in vogue in Queensland, with prominent public figures being investigated by the Queensland Parliamentary Ethics Committee, including Dr Ken Levy and former MP Scott Driscoll.

The Ethics Committee recently released its report into the conduct of Dr Ken Levy, which concludes that it is arguable that Dr Levy’s statements to the Parliamentary Crime and Misconduct Committee (‘PCMC’), as it then was, were factually incorrect and misleading and that Dr Levy knew at the time that he made the statements that they were incorrect and misleading.

Despite this finding, the Ethics Committee refused to make findings supporting the crucial element of a charge of contempt of Parliament, namely that Dr Levy intended to mislead the Parliament at the time that he made the factually incorrect and misleading statements. It appears that Dr Levy’s treating specialist provided the Committee with evidence that Dr Levy was not able to attend for questioning by the Committee.

This refusal is puzzling where the clear inference available from the conduct of Dr Levy is that he did intend to mislead the PCMC. In-depth analysis of Dr Levy’s evidence to the PCMC can be found here.

That conduct was examined in detail by the Ethics Committee, which found that Dr Levy "arguably" misled the PCMC, when he:

  • Denied, when giving evidence to the PCMC on 1 November 2013, that he had discussions with "anyone from government" prior to penning his opinion piece in the Courier Mail supporting the Newman Government’s stance on bikies. The Ethics Committee found that Dr Levy had not only spoken to Mr Lee Anderson, the Premier’s chief media advisor, but also Mr John Sosso, director-general of the Department of Justice and Attorney-General, a few days before the article was published.
  • Wrote to the then chair of the PCMC, Liz Cunningham MP, on 4 November 2013, to clarify his evidence on 1 November 2013, where the letter failed to disclose his personal contact with Mr Anderson, including a face-to-face meeting at the Executive building;
  • Failed, in his evidence to the PCMC on 13 November 2013, to inform the PCMC of the recommendation Mr Anderson made that Dr Levy should contact a particular journalist at the Courier Mail, Mr Des Houghton, instead proffering the laughable explanation that he had Googled Mr Houghton;
  • Denied, in his evidence to the PCMC on 13 November 2013, that he had more than one contact with Mr Anderson, or that they had spoken about the content of Dr Levy’s article. The Ethics Committee found there had been a number of text messages between Mr Anderson and Dr Levy, and that Mr Anderson had advised Dr Levy to take a particular line in response to questions Mr Houghton might have about links between bikies and corrupt police officers on the Gold Coast.

The obvious inference that can be drawn from this course of conduct is that Dr Levy misled the PCMC on the first occasion, on 1 November 2013, because he did not want to reveal the contact he had with Mr Sosso and Mr Anderson about the story he wrote. The further inference that is easily available is that Dr Levy subsequently issued an entirely inadequate clarification and further misled the PCMC in an effort to cover up his earlier misleading statements.

It is difficult to see how these inferences are rebutted by the apparently bald denials by Dr Levy, made in his unpublished submission, which is referred to in the Ethics Committee report. It is even more difficult to see how Dr Levy is able to escape any findings that he may have intended to mislead the PCMC by means of what amounts to a medical certificate.

The most puzzling aspect though is that the Labor members on the Ethics Committee were somehow convinced to let Dr Levy off the hook.

At the height of the controversy about Dr Levy, Premier Newman sacked the entire membership of the PCMC, on 21 November 2013, in order to prevent it from further investigating Dr Levy. At the time, Labor called for a judicial inquiry into the affair.

In the catalogue of anti-democratic and authoritarian moves by Premier Newman, this step possibly represented the greatest single dislocation with the tradition of rebuilding democracy in this State after the Fitzgerald Inquiry.

The sacking occurred when Dr Levy was due to give further evidence to the PCMC, and to be questioned about the disparity between his recollection of events and that of Mr Anderson. Now, more than two years after that event, Dr Levy has continued to avoid having to answer questions about those contradictions.

The judicial inquiry called for by Labor has not been forthcoming since Ms Palaszckuk formed government in March this year. A survey conducted by The Australia Institute in early February showed that 73% of Queensland voters said that ‘accountability, transparency and trust in government’ had a large impact in how they cast their vote. These issues could well have tipped what was a very close election result and Labor did campaign on a platform of cleaning up the corrupt and anti-democratic practices of the Newman/Bleijie regime.

The treatment of Dr Levy by the Ethics Committee can be usefully contrasted with the case of Scott Driscoll, the disgraced former MP for Redcliffe. Premier Newman initially stood by Mr Driscoll, who was accused of running a retail lobby group from his electoral office and paying his wife tens of thousands of dollars in public moneys as consultancy fees.

The Ethics Committee eventually found that Mr Driscoll had both failed to properly register his interests and had deliberately misled the Parliament when making a "personal explanation" about his interests in the lobby group. Mr Driscoll provided the Committee with documents from his medical specialist, who said that Mr Driscoll would be unable to assist the Committee for an unknown period of time, due to his illness.

Mr Driscoll, like Dr Levy, made written submissions to the Committee, which were taken into account in the investigation, despite his illness. In the case of Mr Driscoll, however, the Committee decided to proceed to examine the documentary evidence and affidavits of individuals who contradicted Mr Driscoll’s explanations to determine the veracity of Mr Driscoll’s claims. This process led to Mr Driscoll being found to have deliberately misled the Parliament.

One of the key findings in that regard was that Mr Driscoll’s misleading statements were not made 'off the cuff', but were

‘... part of a prepared personal explanation to the House following the arising of certain allegations in the media.'

This precise description could be applied to the letter Dr Levy wrote to the chair of the PCMC on 4 November 2013 and his subsequent evidence to the PCMC on 13 November 2013.

No explanation has been proffered by the Ethics Committee as to why it did not proceed to examine the evidence in detail, including the contradictory evidence of Mr Anderson, draw inferences and make findings as to Dr Levy’s intention to mislead the House.

The treatment of Dr Levy calls into question the integrity and effectiveness of the Ethics Committee itself, as it condemns the actions of Premier Newman and Attorney-General Bleijie for sacking the PCMC based on what have proven to be well-founded attacks on Dr Levy’s fitness for his office.

The conduct of the Labor members on the Ethics Committee is baffling and indicates a degree of backsliding from the firm commitments by Labor to restore accountability in government in Queensland.

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