Customs officials allegedly involved in drug smuggling

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A network of Australian border security officials is allegedly working for organised criminals, including drug and tobacco smugglers, in the most serious corruption scandal to ever hit the nation’s border agencies. A Fairfax Media investigation has uncovered multiple cases of alleged corruption involving staff from the Australian Border Force and the Department of Agriculture, along with maritime industry employees with government clearances.

Police on Wednesday arrested a Department of Agriculture compliance assessment officer, Richard Vong, over alleged links to organised criminals, including a syndicate led by suspected Melbourne drug trafficker Jimmy Chhav. They also raided his house.

Mr Vong will face court on Thursday charged with trafficking and possessing a drug of dependence, knowingly dealing in the proceeds of crime, dealing in property reasonably suspected of being the proceeds of crime and theft of Commonwealth property. A female official has been charged with knowingly dealing in the proceeds of crime and dealing in property reasonably suspected of being the proceeds of crime.

The allegations come as the government makes a virtue of its strength on border security, with Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull claiming the opposition “lack the commitment to keep our borders secure”.

However, the federal government and customs chiefs, including the nation’s top border security official, Michael Pezzullo, have been repeatedly warned over four years in high-level confidential briefings about significant suspected corruption in the Border Force’s ranks, especially in NSW.

Evidence, including NSW police briefing notes and testimony from crime figures, suggests that one of the most vital border security facilities, the NSW Customs Examination Facility, has been compromised by corrupt insiders, enabling criminals to import large amounts of drugs and tobacco undetected. Staff at the facility are responsible for searching containers suspected to contain contraband. A small network of Department of Agriculture officials responsible for clearing imports into Australia have also been assisting and liaising with known drug traffickers for at least the past five years.

This network is allegedly led by Mr Vong, a suspected corrupt Department of Agriculture official, who works out of Customs House in Melbourne. The department missed multiple warnings about Mr Vong and some of his colleagues.

Fairfax Media has delayed reporting on the border corruption scandal for several months at the request of authorities.

In NSW, evidence uncovered by Fairfax Media from multiple sources, including agency officials, government briefing files and figures with underworld ties, implicates border force officials in drug and tobacco trafficking, and leaking to the criminal underworld.

Criminal intelligence suggests one officer has been taking kickbacks of hundreds of thousands of dollars from traffickers, while another has been facilitating importations.

Suspected corrupt officers are still operating.

The latest scandal comes three years after a network of corrupt customs officers was identified at Sydney airport and charged by the federal police. At the time, Mr Pezzullo promised sweeping reforms, including many which have been implemented.

Top security and policing officials, along with corruption experts, called for the nation’s federal police watchdog, the Australian Commission for Law Enforcement Integrity (ACLEI) to have its budget dramatically increased and said the Australian Border Force had failed to deal with corruption in its ranks.

Leading corruption expert and former senior judge Stephen Charles, QC, said ACLEI –- which, with about 20 investigators out of a total of 55 staff, is among the smallest corruption fighting agencies in Australia –- was badly outgunned. Mr Charles said Australia needed an anti-corruption agency with hundreds of staff.

“It [ACLEI] needs to be ten-drupled,” a law enforcement agency source said.

Fairfax Media can also reveal that officers from the joint state and federal Polaris waterfront crime taskforce in NSW, which has played a key role in identifying corruption on the docks, were last week told they would be shut down due to a lack of funding. State police are furious, but Federal Government sources insist the funding has been reallocated to other anti-organised crime taskforces.

One briefing describes how a veteran customs officer who has previously worked closely with the AFP and the NSW Crime Commission is suspected of leaking “sensitive information” to drug and tobacco importers.  A customs officer is also named as having travelled overseas with a suspected criminal.

Property records obtained by Fairfax Media reveal this customs officer, who was on long-term sick leave, lives next door to the suspected criminal in the Sydney suburb of Sylvania Waters.

The border security scandal comes three years after the Sydney airport customs corruption scandal, in which a network of corrupt customs officers led by customs officer Adrian Lamella were trafficking drugs using couriers on international flights.

The reforms implemented by Mr Pezzullo and the federal government after the Sydney airport scandal appear to have failed to stop significant corruption in the agency.

One senior government source said the Australian Border Force was “incapable” of eradicating corruption in its ranks and sometimes dealt with internal integrity issues with departmental sanctions, such as demotion or sacking, rather than by conducting intensive probes that could expose corrupt networks.

The Department of Agriculture section involved in Mr Vong’s alleged corrupt network was formerly named the Australian Quarantine Inspection Service.

AQIS senior managers were first warned that organised criminals had infiltrated the agency’s ranks in 2012, when an officer was identified, and later charged, for leaking information to a drug importation syndicate.

Information outlining Mr Vong’s alleged links to suspected drug trafficker Jimmy Chhav has been held by various law enforcement agencies for several years, but it is unclear if it was ever formally passed to the Department of Agriculture.  However, the department had its own information linking the pair which was never acted upon.

In April 2012, Fairfax Media first reported Australia’s maritime borders were badly exposed to corruption and that a confidential Operation Polaris report had found that “serious organised crime groups are able to access and exploit key Australian government officers.”

“Polaris investigations have identified employees of law enforcement and regulatory bodies providing assistance to criminal groups. This assistance is less common but of higher consequence than private sector corruption. The employees have included members of customs and employees of AQIS.

“Operation Polaris has also determined the government’s Maritime Security Identification Cards – required by tens of thousands of Australians who work in the industry – have failed to stop organised crime infiltration.

“Multiple MSIC holders are involved in drug activity and are subject to substantial intelligence holdings detailing their criminal activity and criminal associates.”

Stephen Charles, QC, a former Victorian Court of Appeals judge and an expert in anti-corruption agencies, said watchdog ACLEI was unable to combat public sector corruption outside of several policing agencies.

Mr Charles, who recently gave testimony to a Senate committee about the need for the establishment of a national anti-corruption agency, said ACLEI’s staff had good intentions but had limited investigative and jurisdictional capacity.

The Federal government has recently passed laws to ensure that people with criminal histories are not giving the government security clearance to work on the waterfront or at airports.

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