But what we do know is that two people, Faruk Orman and Zlate Cvetanovski, have had their convictions overturned because of police corruption. Some police would say that it was “noble cause corruption”, the ends justified the means. Well, you can put the words “noble” and “cause” in front of corruption. It is still corruption.
Gobbo may have been the cover story. But she is one person. Purana were many. They were the most powerful and well-funded taskforce within the Victoria Police at the time. They were touted as heroes in the gangland war. Now their legacy will be determined by what they did and what they never wanted us to know about.
The adversarial system of justice has never been (nor will it ever be) perfect. Out of all of the systems tried and tested by civilisation, since human beings decided not to arbitrarily execute each other, this is the one that has worked the best in criminal matters. On the one side, there are the police and prosecution representing the community. On the other side are the defence representing the individual accused.
Police officers and defence lawyers are co-dependent. The system cannot exist without either and through that relationship has developed a tentative trust in the expectation that the rules will be followed. This trust isn’t born simply out of fealty to the system but also for practical and economic reasons. If there was no trust between the participants in the system, it would be hugely more expensive and time-consuming to conduct criminal matters because every point would be contested and cross-checked. When you ask a police officer whether they have any notes of contact with witnesses, for example, and they say “no”, you should be able to accept that answer. Not anymore.
When I am asked what the legacy of the Purana Scandal is (I have stopped calling it the Gobbo Scandal because she was one person – Purana was made up of many), my response is that they will be remembered as the police who took the trust out of the justice system.
I have friends who are former police officers. They served on the force throughout the 1970s and 1980s. They represent an “old guard”, who respected their place in the system. When the trial was over, they could have a drink at the pub and put the case behind them, they say, until the next time they were in court opposed to each other. When the Purana Scandal was revealed, former Chief Commissioner Graham Ashton defended Purana: “They were desperate and dangerous times”. He ignored the fact that, whilst the events of 1998–2004 were alarming, they weren’t novel. If you speak with the “old guard” about the events of the ’70s and ’80s you will hear about the shootings, the murders, and the “stick-ups”.
What was novel was how the Purana trials were corrupted before they began. Not only by using Gobbo as a human source but also by employing a number of other unethical and deceitful practices (such as covertly paying the living expenses of a crucial Crown witness).
Even more astonishing is the number of police officers who engaged in this conduct. Anyone who sat in on the royal commission saw them come in, some of them nervous, others unapologetic.
I watched the sometimes firm resolve of haughty police members disappear under cross-examination when they were confronted with the reality of their behaviour and its consequences. Others were staunch and declared they had done nothing wrong. But where there were differences between them, there were also similarities, including the fact that many were and still are in the force, and in senior positions. When their evidence was over, they would return to their stations and offices with their badges intact.
If there is one thing that Chief Commissioner Shane Patton and I can agree on is that there was clearly a cultural problem within Victoria Police during the period that Purana undermined the criminal justice system. Where we differ is that I don’t think this problem is consigned to the past. So long as these Purana officers are still in the force, then that cultural problem still exists.
The culture of an organisation runs from the top. The choice for Victoria Police now is whether what runs down is dirty water or something clearer and cleaner. Nicola Gobbo ceased practising (rightfully so) and was struck off the bar roll for her part (also rightfully so). Many of her co-offenders still wear the badge. None have been disciplined nor prosecuted.
So, what is the legacy of the Purana Taskforce? They tore the integrity out of policing. This arrogant corruption may have achieved a handful of convictions, two of which have been overturned with potentially many to follow, but it also discredited an entire police force and tore the system apart. The system was supposed to be fair and they made sure it wasn’t. They took the justice out of the justice system and in doing so destroyed the trust between the police and defence upon which that system depends. That is the legacy of the Purana Taskforce.
Ruth Parker is a criminal defence lawyer with Galbally Parker Lawyers who represented Faruk Orman and Zlate Cvetanovski.