Showdown looms as Ombudsman claims immunity to avoid answering questions into massive police inquiry

Standing by top cops: Premier Mike Baird.

Standing by top cops: Premier Mike Baird.

A showdown between the NSW Ombudsman Bruce Barbour and a parliamentary committee is set for Tuesday, with Mr Barbour claiming public interest immunity to avoid answering questions on secret details of his massive inquiry into police.

A test of wills is likely, with politicans insisting they have the right to demand answers from Mr Barbour, who was issued a summons to appear.

“The upper house has had consistent and repeated advice that claims for public interest immunity do not defeat the powers of Parliament,” said the committee’s deputy chairman, Greens MP David Shoebridge.

“Clearly these are matters that are appropriate to consider, but they do not limit the committees powers to seek answers

Police Commissioner Andrew Scipione’s appearance has meanwhile been delayed until Wednesday, to allow him to view allegations made in a confidential submission by former commander of internal affairs Malcolm Brammer.

Mr Barbour wrote to the committee last week, warning any evidence he gave “has significant potential to be corrosive of confidence in my report”.

Operation Prospect had generated 1 million pages of information, 70 hearing days, examined 2322 pages of affadavits paragraph by paragraph, and would provide a final report to parliament in June, Mr Barbour said.

“I have reached no conclusions and made no findings about the alleged conduct,” he wrote.

The parliamentary inquiry could tip off people who are yet to be approached, he claimed.

His letter revealed Commissioner Scipione’s conduct has come under investigation, and has been the subject of private hearings, after allegations he improperly interfered in an investigation, and had made misleading media statements.

Mr Barbour said he wanted to clear up public misconceptions, and said a mistake on an affidavit wasn’t of itself a criminal act, it needed to be wilfully false. He flagged he is considering whether “criminal charges of this nature will be made”.

Right to silence: NSW Ombudsman Bruce Barbour.

Right to silence: NSW Ombudsman Bruce Barbour.

On Friday, Deputy Commissioner Catherine Burn denied she was responsible, as team leader, for incorrect affidavits being used to obtain warrants for listening devices without evidence.

Mr Barbour’s letter acknowledged the harrowing mental health toll among police caused by the bugging operation and prolonged investigations.

Some witnesses suffer “severe mental health problems” and became “very distressed by having to give evidence”.

At least eight witnesses had a mental health condition. Four witnesses provided medical reports indicating they were too unwell to give evidence, of whom two were excused.

Of the two forced to give evidence, one was excused mid-hearing when they began “experiencing difficulties”, while the other was later excused from further attendance.

Mr Barbour said it was legitimate for his office to investigate the leaking of 20,000 pages of confidential police material, including 61 separate documents, some of which were given to the media.

He wrote that unlike whistleblowers who approached his office directly, these persons wouldn’t be protected by the Public Interest Disclosure Act.

Premier Mike Baird said on Saturday “some of the events we have seen are disturbing” but he would “wait until we get all the facts on the table”.

Police minister Stuart Ayres said: “There’s no doubt that having the senior echelons of the NSW police force play out disputes on TV screens is not comfortable for anyone.”

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Henry Sapiecha

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