Cops fork out $300,000 to battle FOI requests
Exclusive: The Australian Federal Police spent more than $300,000 in just over two years hiring some of the nation's top flight legal firms as it battled to manage hundreds of freedom of information requests.
It has been revealed the AFP spent $70,000 just in the past six months with one of the big law firms, Clayton Utz, which came under fire in the banking royal commission for being complicit in AMP misleading ASIC, the corporate regulator.
Documents obtained under Freedom of Information laws by News Corp show during the past two years the AFP "seconded lawyers", to process and review FOI requests also paying:
Almost $120,000 to the Australian Government Solicitor's office;
$90,981.38 to national law firm Mills Oakley;
$24,496.00 to Canberra law firm Meyer Vandenburg;
$3,398.00 to international law firm Minter Ellison.
The AFP has also revealed that it has paid contractors from Allygroup, which provides legal consulting services, and Hays, a specialist global recruiting firm which provides diverse services - but it is not known what work was carried out nor how much they have been paid.
Government outsourcing has been seen as a way to cut costs, but also to avoid transparency and Australia's FOI laws, because documents produced by public servants are subject to FOI, but documents from private contractors do the same work as public servants are not.
Emeritus Professor Richard Mulgan from the Crawford School of Public Policy at The Australian National University has written a paper, Transparency and the Performance of Outsourced Government Services, stating private contractors in an outsourcing arrangement are not directly subject to FOI laws.
But the AFP has denied outsourcing FOI requests to avoid scrutiny.
"The use of law firms or other outside resources is to address short term capacity issues. The AFP does not use law firms or legal professional privilege to avoid our FOI obligations, or the release of information," said an AFP spokesman.
"As AFP appointees seconded to work with the AFP any work they do is subject to disclosure under FOI," he said.
In 2017-18, the AFP received 682 FOI requests and eight internal reviews and in the following year 2018-19, the AFP received 726 requests and 25 internal reviews.
Over the same time period 640 FOI requests and seven internal reviews were processed. In 2018-19, the AFP processed 758 requests (the number includes ongoing requests) and 23 internal reviews.
The AFP spokesman said the AFP receives an increasing number of FOI requests every year, of which many often both complex and significant.
The spokesman said the most cost effective and efficient way for the AFP to address short term increases in requests is to bring additional resources into the AFP with access to AFP systems and the relevant people and delegates.
"Given the significant and sensitive nature of much of the material the AFP holds and processes, the AFP often seeks secondees (usually junior lawyers) from the 'whole of government' legal services panel firms to assist in FOI processing. However, the AFP has also from time to time purchased additional resources (contractors) from Allygroup and Hays, as well as secondees from other Commonwealth agencies to assist in processing FOI requests," he said.
He said while they remain employees of their firms or agencies, they hold AFP security clearances, are given access to AFP systems and are AFP appointees subject to the same professional standards, secrecy and reporting provisions as other AFP employees.
But the AFP has denied outsourcing FOI processing or FOI decision making, except for limited matters.
"Occasionally, for significant, long running, highly complex matters, or ones where the FOI team could be seen to have a perceived conflict of interest the AFP will engage the Australian Government Solicitor, to assist by providing advice and collating material relevant to the request, and providing advice and recommendations to the decision maker," said the spokesman.
"Even in these matters, the AFP delegate remains the decision maker."