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A convicted drug trafficker and up to two dozen other gangland figures, including Tony Mokbel, could walk free after prosecutors conceded that Victoria Police corrupted a key jailhouse witness by paying him $10,000.
The Director of Public Prosecutions has acknowledged a “substantial miscarriage of justice” occurred as a result of the pay-off scheme allegedly run by former detectives at the Purana anti-gangland taskforce.
Tony Mokbel outside the Supreme Court in 2006.Credit:Angela Wylie
Documents released to The Age by the Court of Appeal show police paid money into the prison canteen account of a drug trafficker-turned supergrass known as "Mr Cooper".
They concealed the transactions by using postal money orders, which were purchased by Victoria Police but issued in the name of Mr Cooper’s sister.
Prosecutors have now conceded that the drug trafficking conviction against Zlate “Steve” Cvetanovski should be quashed and an acquittal entered due to the actions of Victoria Police in secretly paying Mr Cooper to co-operate, the documents say.
The 54-year-old was sentenced in 2012 to 11 years jail, but was granted bail in May 2020 amid concerns his case had been corrupted by the actions of his former lawyer, barrister-turned-informer Nicola Gobbo and her associates at Victoria Police.
But Mr Cooper's evidence was also used to convict 23 other people, mostly from the Mokbel family drug cartel, including its leader, Tony. The Court of Appeal is expected to rule next week on Cvetanovski’s appeal and the decision could provide a road map to challenge those convictions.
"Mr Cooper" was a key player in the crime syndicate who became a key police witness after Ms Gobbo simultaneously informed on and represented him.
The Court of Appeal has been told, and the Office of Public Prosecutions accepts, that Mr Cooper secretly received at least $10,000 from Victoria Police over a five-year period from 2006 to 2011. At the time, he was a jailhouse witness in dozens of cases and investigations.
“The failure of Victoria Police to disclose financial payments to Mr Cooper prevented [Cvetanovski] from properly testing Mr Cooper’s evidence which was central to the prosecution case, resulting in a substantial miscarriage of justice,” Chief Crown Prosecutor Brendan Kissane, QC, wrote in submissions to the Court of Appeal.
Post Office, St Kilda Road … $295 Sent to Barwon Prison (Prisoner Accounts) … 298.60 in total. $3000.00 cash Provided by D/lns O'Brien
Under the law, any compensation provided to a witness must be disclosed in criminal proceedings because they are considered “inducements” that can affect a witness’ credibility.
In Cvetanovksi’s 2011 trial, the judge described Mr Cooper’s evidence as “pivotal” to the prosecution case and directed the jury that if its members were not satisfied beyond reasonable doubt about his evidence they should acquit Cvetanvoski. The jury found him guilty.
Mr Cooper, who was serving a 10-year sentence for serious drug offences apparently spent the money in the prison canteen buying prized jailhouse luxuries such as a doona.
Apart from the convictions his evidence helped secure, Mr Cooper also provided sworn statements in 45 other major police investigations into drug trafficking and the underworld, according to a review conducted by the Royal Commission into the Management of Police Informants.
The payments were uncovered by Cvetanovski’s legal team, which is headed by solicitor Ruth Parker of Galbally Parker Lawyers. While preparing her appeal, Ms Parker obtained records from Corrections Victoria that showed at least $10,000 had been deposited in Mr Cooper’s prison canteen account over five years.
At the time, the maximum amount that could be paid was $170 each month. Deposits for Mr Cooper ranged from $240 to $295 a month. Receipts indicated the money orders were often purchased in the name of Mr Cooper’s sister at several post offices in the CBD and on St Kilda Road.
But police diaries and other records produced to Cvetanovski’s defence showed corresponding withdrawal or handling details in the names of numerous officers who were then attached to Purana.
Among those identified as facilitating the payments are current Victoria Police Inspector Dale Flynn and Detective Sergeant Paul Rowe, as well as the former head of the Purana Taskforce Detective Inspector Jim O’Brien, who was immortalised in the TV series Underbelly by actor Shane Jacobson.
“Post Office, St Kilda Road … $295 Sent to Barwon Prison (Prisoner Accounts) re [redacted] envelope & 298.60 in total. Receipt obtained. $3000.00 cash Provided by D/lns O'Brien,” reads one police diary entry.
Jim O’Brien, former head of the Purana Task Force.Credit:Jason South
Records from Corrections Victoria two days later note there was a $295 deposit into Mr Cooper’s prison account.
“The payments to Cooper were made by Police and Gobbo under his sister's name to prevent the true source of the payments from being detected if the records were subpoenaed,” lawyers for Cvetanovski submitted to the Court of Appeal.
The suspicious trail first came to light after the royal commission heard evidence that Mr Cooper had previously received payments into his prison account from his then lawyer, Ms Gobbo. The allegations have been accepted by the Director of Public Prosecutions, which conceded its “particular significance” prevented Cventavski from receiving a fair trial.
“In this case, the Applicant was deprived of the opportunity to seek a direction from the Court in relation to the unreliability of Mr Cooper's evidence by reason of the fact that Victoria Police were involved in the making of the undisclosed payments,” Mr Kissane acknowledged.
Faruk Orman shortly after his release from jail, with lawyer Ruth Parker.Credit:Justin McManus
Cvetanovski’s lawyer, Ms Parker, said the scheme was designed "to keep this witness comfortable in custody so that he would continue to assist and cooperate with police against a number of accused, including Mr Cvetanovski.
"This was never disclosed," she said in a statement. "Not to Mr Cvetanovski, his lawyers, the Prosecution nor the Court."
The Court of Appeal would "ultimately decide whether Mr Cvetanovski’s appeal should be allowed and his conviction set aside," Ms Parker said, and it would "be inappropriate to comment further”.
Last year, Ms Parker was also instrumental in the Court of Appeal’s decision to quash a gangland-era murder conviction against Faruk Orman after it found serious misconduct by Victoria Police and his former lawyer, Ms Gobbo.
The revelation about the illicit payments could have major repercussions for safety of 23 other convictions obtained with testimony from Mr Cooper, if appeals are launched alleging those cases were similarly contaminated by the actions of Victoria Police.
At the top of the list is jailed drug king Tony Mokbel, who pleaded guilty to drug trafficking in 2012 in part by the testimony of his former underling, Mr Cooper.
Mr Cooper’s management as a witness by Victoria Police and his then barrister Gobbo has been the subject of intensive scrutiny by the royal commission.
The commission heard Ms Gobbo routinely informed on Mr Cooper while acting as his lawyer, eventually helping turn him into one of the most prolific witnesses-for-the prosecution in Melbourne’s underworld war.
"Victoria Police acknowledges the decision of the DPP. We will not be commenting further," a police spokeswoman said.
Mr O'Brien also declined to comment.
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