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Ombudsman 'may stand aside' from Chapman inquiry

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The state’s Ombudsman says he may have to delegate an investigation into Attorney-General Vickie Chapman and Premier Steven Marshall to “a suitable person” outside his office as he seeks submissions as to whether the inquiry raises perceptions of a conflict of interest.

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Chapman has “stood aside” from her role as the state’s top law officer, but remains Attorney-General and a member of cabinet, although she will not attend meetings while the investigation is ongoing.

The inquiry was prompted by a referral from a parliamentary committee, which found she had conflicts of interest, misled parliament and breached the ministerial code of conduct in relation to her decision to veto a $40 million Kangaroo Island timber port.

Chapman has argued it was necessary to “stand aside” from the Attorney-General’s role because her department is responsible for funding and overseeing the Ombudsman’s office – although she has also quit as Deputy Premier and resigned as Minister for Planning and Local Government.

Her A-G’s department’s CEO, Caroline Mealor, has meanwhile “delegated all decision-making functions relating to the Office of the Ombudsman to the [agency’s] Executive Director, Legal and Legislative Services for the duration of the investigation to ensure the integrity of the process”, the agency told InDaily this week.

However, Ombudsman Wayne Lines today issued a statement revealing he was yet to commence his inquiry, which also tasked to investigate “the role that any other public officer undertook relevant to the Attorney-General’s decision, including the role and responsibility of the Premier, Chief Executives and other public officers, including Crown Law Officers”.

“Before commencing an investigation, for the purposes of transparency, I have considered it necessary to write to the Committee and the various parties involved in the referral… to outline my statutory and other relationships with those parties,” he said.

“Relationships of particular relevance include that my Office is funded through a State Budget allocation through the Attorney-General’s Department, all my staff are employed with the Attorney-General’s Department – albeit assigned to my Office and under my direction – and from time to time I met with Ms Chapman in her role as head of the Attorney-General’s Department to discuss operational matters.

“My view is that none of these relationships give rise to an actual conflict of interest.”

However, he said, “to the extent that these relationships may give rise to a perceived conflict of interest, I consider that any such conflicts have and will be appropriately managed so as not to impact on the impartiality and independence of my investigation”.

“In all of the circumstances, however, I consider that it is appropriate that the interested parties be given the opportunity to comment on this issue before an investigation is commenced.”

He has requested that they do so “no later than 1 December 2021”, when he “will consider any comments before an investigation is commenced”.

“It is of utmost importance that everyone involved in the referral has confidence in the process and fundamental to that process is that it is conducted impartially and independently,” Lines said.

“If any of the interested parties have a reasonable objection to my carriage of the investigation due to a perceived conflict of interest, I will consider delegating the function of investigating to a suitable person outside of my office.”

The delay to the process suggests there will no resolution to the matter in coming weeks, and possibly not before the March election.

Lines’ public statement suggests he does not regard Chapman’s decision to “step aside” from the portfolio while retaining the office of Attorney-General has unequivocally resolved questions of conflict – although it appears unlikely any of the recipients of his request will urge him to recuse himself.

Chapman declined to comment.

Crime and Public Integrity Policy Committee chair Frank Pangallo this week argued that carriage of the Ombudsman’s office should be transferred out of the Attorney-General’s department, “along with other integrity agencies”.

“They need to be independently funded, not reliant on the A-G’s department,” he said.

“The Ombudsman needs to be at arm’s length from the executive, not having to go cap in hand to the A-G to get additional funding for additional workload following the ICAC reforms.

“Changes need to be made to the Ombudsman’s Act to ensure the office’s funding, and that it is done separate to the Attorney-General’s Department.”

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