Inquiry chair’s probe into Lehrmann trial allegedly influenced by journalist, court told
Explosive texts and emails allegedly revealed the chair of an inquiry examining Bruce Lehrmann’s abandoned criminal trial allowed a journalist to corrupt his impartiality, a court was told.
Inquiry chair and former Queensland Supreme Court judge Walter Sofronoff communicated extensively with The Australian journalist Janet Albrechtsen before and during the inquiry into Bruce Lehrmann’s criminal trial for allegedly raping Brittany Higgins.
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It was this communication that allegedly “poisoned his mind” against former ACT Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP), Shane Drumgold, who had made several complaints about the police’s handling of the rape allegations while he prosecuted Mr Lehrmann.
In a report released in August last year, Mr Sofronoff made “several serious findings of misconduct” against Mr Drumgold and claimed there had been an “egregious abuse” of the DPP position.
Shortly after he resigned, Mr Drumgold launched legal action in the ACT Supreme Court to challenge Mr Sofronoff’s findings.
Appearing on Mr Drumgold’s behalf on Tuesday (13 February), counsel Dan O’Gorman said that out of the 91 calls Mr Sofronoff had with media during the inquiry, 51 of those were with Ms Albrechtsen and a further 27 were with colleagues at the newspaper.
Mr O’Gorman alleged a “reasonable assessment of these figures” and the content Ms Albrechtsen published on The Australian would lead a fair-minded observer to have “real concerns”.
“We submit that sample of articles discloses that while Ms Albrechtsen was reporting adversely in relation to Mr Drumgold, some rather positive articles were being published by the same journalist in relation to Mr Lehrmann,” Mr O’Gorman alleged.
Mr O’Gorman said it was “ultimately” his submission that a fair-minded observer would apprehend Ms Albrechtsen’s “biased” view had been allegedly inflicted onto Mr Sofronoff.
“What is of concern for ground two is if a fair-minded lay observer might reasonably apprehend that Mr Sofronoff might not bring an impartial mind to the resolution of the questions that were before him,” Mr O’Gorman said during his oral submissions.
The court was told that while Mr Drumgold was in the witness box, Mr Sofronoff and Ms Albrechtsen were in contact 13 times.
Mr O’Gorman alleged no other journalist “had the privilege of such communications” with Mr Sofronoff during this time.
“Importantly, Mr Drumgold was not aware of any of it. He had no idea what was going on behind the scenes,” Mr O’Gorman said.
‘Concerning’ text messages influence decision making
The court was told Ms Albrechtsen was introduced to Mr Sofronoff by colleague Hedley Thomas, who advised the inquiry chair Ms Albrechtsen’s work was “persuasive” to his “Left-leaning friends”.
Mr Thomas added Ms Albrechtsen had been writing “very interesting stories about complaints levelled against DPP Shane Drumgold and his behaviour” since the abandoned criminal trial.
Some of the more “concerning” communications which then occurred between the two included a request by Ms Albrechtsen that Mr Sofronoff consider a stay application and how it related to a decision to drop the rape charges against Mr Lehrmann.
Mr O’Gorman also walked the court through findings in Mr Sofronoff’s report that Mr Drumgold had “preyed” on a junior lawyer by directing him to make a misleading affidavit.
He told the Supreme Court Mr Sofronoff had texted Ms Albrechtsen: “What a thing to do to young professionals under your mentorship.”
Ms Albrechtsen also advised Mr Sofronoff there had been a redaction issue in Ms Higgins’ book extracts, which Mr O’Gorman said should have been the job of counsel assisting to remedy.
Mr O’Gorman said he also had evidence of Mr Sofronoff “volunteering” information about the inquiry in circumstances where Ms Albrechtsen had not asked, including sending her a list of witnesses and their scheduled time to appear.
There was also the “disturbing feature” of Mr Sofronoff and Ms Albrechtsen communicating across four different email addresses.
“We would suggest it shows there are some communications that certainly never intended to see the light of day,” Mr O’Gorman said.
The two were also said to have met for lunch in Brisbane.