An ACT deputy chief police officer who oversaw the Lehrmann rape investigation said the intense media pressure hanging over the police motivated him to direct the former Coalition staffer be charged in late 2021.
Commander Michael Chew told his subordinate Detective Superintendent Scott Moller in early August “let’s just get it served and move on” against the backdrop of increasing public scrutiny and perceived delays in the investigation.
“The matter was dragging on and the commentary surrounding the matter was increasing,” Chew told an inquiry into authorities’ handling of the high-profile case.
Asked by Erin Longbottom KC, counsel assisting the inquiry, whether those factors had motivated him to direct the court summons be served on Bruce Lehrmann, Chew replied that they had, before acknowledging “in hindsight” he should not have responded that way.
Lehrmann pleaded not guilty to raping Higgins in the parliamentary office of their then-boss, Liberal senator Linda Reynolds, on March 23, 2019, and has always maintained his innocence. The trial was aborted on October 27 due to juror misconduct and there have been no findings against Lehrmann.
The inquiry heard Higgins’ boyfriend David Sharaz had phoned Moller regarding a public conflict between Australian Federal Police Commissioner Reece Kershaw and ACT Director of Public Prosecutions Shane Drumgold SC about the progress of the case.
Asked whether he was concerned police would be subject to further criticism due to delays, Chew replied: “Yes”.
Senior Constable Emma Frizzell, who investigated the case, said in a written statement to the public inquiry that Higgins and Sharaz used the media as a tool, and Higgins wanted to see how the story of her claim “played out” before providing a statement to investigators.
Frizzell said that during a rest break in Higgins’ first recorded interview in March 2021, Sharaz “entered the room and without concern for Ms Higgins’ welfare, commenced showing and discussing media coverage to Ms Higgins”.
“I believe the level of media involvement did affect the conduct of the investigation of Ms Higgins’ complaint,” Frizzell said.
“I believe it was a tool driven by Ms Higgins and Mr Sharaz, which is evident by the first engagement I had with them, whereby Ms Higgins advised she wished to see how the media played out prior to providing a statement.”
Under questioning from Lehrmann’s barrister, Steven Whybrow, during the trial, Higgins said she was speaking to both police and the media to highlight what she believed was a systemic cultural problem.
“I wanted to reform this issue,” Higgins said at the time. “I stand by my choice and I’m not ashamed of that.”
Frizzell said Higgins told her that news.com.au journalist Samantha Maiden was relaying to her what she had uncovered before reporting on it in the media.
“Ms Higgins added at times Ms Maiden’s comments influenced her memories and questioned if her memory is a result of being told information,” the officer’s statement says.
Frizzell said the media interest affected the evidence witnesses provided, with one witness unwilling to offer some evidence in a recorded statement, while another person refused to give evidence because it could affect his future.
After ACT Director of Public Prosecutions Shane Drumgold, SC, announced he was discontinuing the case against Lehrmann on December 2, the ACT government launched a review into the handling of the case, which was partly spurred by a public breakdown in the relationship between the police and the DPP.
Australian Federal Police acting assistant commissioner Joanne Cameron, who was deputy chief police officer in the territory at the time of the trial, told the inquiry on Thursday she feared investigators speaking with Lehrmann’s lawyers during the trial would fuel rumours of police conspiring with defence.
“I held the concern that, at the very least, whenever these sorts of interactions were occurring, if they became known to others, there would be judgments made, not even knowing what the conversations were about … others would make a judgment unfairly against my officers,” Cameron said.
In her written statement, Cameron said the constant media attention generated a “trust no one mentality”.
She said that in April 2022, after Drumgold warned the police that the ABC would publish a story about the wrongful service of Higgins’ counselling notes on Lehrmann’s original defence team, her subordinate, Detective Superintendent Scott Moller, told her it was “clear” that Drumgold had told the journalist.
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