CEO of the Australian Crime Commission
Friends: Mick Keelty, Tony Negus
Home Town: Canberra
John Lawler runs an organisation with extraordinary powers, but he's not an extraordinarily powerful man. Lawler's critics say the silver-haired Australian Federal Police veteran has fallen short of expectations since taking the reins at the Australian Crime Commission two and a half years ago.
"John Lawler does some good things but he's part of what I regard as the white-shirt brigade," says investigative journalist Bob Bottom, who is widely regarded as one of Australia's leading authorities on organised crime. "The ACC has been reduced to an intelligence agency, not an investigating agency. That's not acceptable. I'm very critical of how it's going at the moment."
The ACC — created in 2002 to tackle "nationally significant" crimes such as terrorism, money laundering and drug trafficking — is regularly labelled the country's most powerful crime-fighting agency. Unlike traditional police officers, its agents can force witnesses to give evidence and ban them from revealing to anyone but their lawyer that they were questioned.
"If your client is in front of the ACC, you are sh-t scared," says Australian Lawyers Alliance president Greg Barns.
But many believe the crims aren't nearly scared enough.
A former senior AFP officer, who asked not to be named, says, "Lawler has overseen a decline in the commission's capabilities when it is struggling for resources and not well regarded by other law-enforcement agencies. It's had a notable lack of success over recent years in terms of arrests."
Bob Bottom – who has been involved in 18 official inquiries into organised crime – says the downgrading of the ACC began before Lawler took over but has accelerated under his leadership.
The commission charged only 102 people last year, down from 184 in 2008-2009 and 201 the year before. And despite rebranding itself last year as a "criminal intelligence agency" rather than as a "criminal intelligence and investigation agency", there's no hard evidence that the ACC's intelligence performance has improved. The commission's latest annual report leaves out the crucial figure of how many 'intelligence disseminations' it delivered to its partner agencies. Bob Bottom's analysis of the report puts the figure at about 4000, down 33% on the year before.
"I think it [the ACC] has been a failure," says former NSW police detective Tim Priest. "You don't hear about what they do – and if they were having successes, you'd know because they'd be blowing their trumpet. They're not nearly as successful as they should be."
John Lawler, who declined to be interviewed, has previously defended his focus on intelligence gathering, saying that the ACC plays a crucial role in helping state police and the AFP work together to make arrests.
There have been some big successes under his watch – most notably Operation Hoffman, one of the biggest investigations into organised crime in Australian history. The operation – led by the ACC in co-operation with NSW police, the AFP and anti-money-laundering agency Austrac – uncovered connections between bikie gangs, Chinese triads and corrupt maritime officials, and led to major ecstasy, heroin and crystal methamphetamine busts last year.
It would also be unfair to blame all the ACC's problems – real or perceived – on Lawler alone. The strategic direction of the ACC is set by a 15-member board that includes the bosses of the AFP, ASIO, ASIC, the ATO and all the state and territory police commissioners. As CEO, Lawler sits on the board but doesn't get a vote.
Which makes one wonder whether doesn't regret jumping ship from the AFP in March 2009, only two months before Mick Keelty's shock resignation as commissioner. Lawler – described by one former colleague as Keelty's "hit man, enforcer and Mr Fixit" – would have been a favourite to take over the top job.
Tough, thorough and modest are the words most often used to describe Lawler, the son of a former senior public servant (his father, Sir Peter, wrote the 1966 cabinet decision that led to the abolition of the White Australia Policy). He's not a show pony and he's not a pushover.
"I have come to the conclusion that John rules by fear," Keelty told the AFP's quarterly journal in 2009. "Not fear of repercussion but fear of disappointment...nobody wants to fail to meet his standards."
"He was intolerant of disloyalty to the AFP, or dishonesty," recalled AFP agent Andy Thorp, also in 2009. "His visits to the workplace or a summons to his office therefore often generated nervousness even if it was not warranted."
He's also not one to readily admit mistakes. Lawler was AFP Deputy Commissioner of National Security in 2007 when Dr Mohamed Haneef was charged with terrorism offences — a decision later slammed by the Clarke Inquiry. "From my perspective, the AFP had a job to do, did it to the best of their ability, no suggestion of any corruption, no suggestion of any malpractice," Lawler said three months after the release of the inquiry. "These were people who were operating in the best interests of the community."
Lawler's AFP career also contained many highlights, including supervising security operations during the 2000 Sydney Olympics and representing the force in Washington DC. He won the ACT Emergency Medal – awarded to recognise courage and leadership during emergencies — for his service during the 2003 Canberra bushfires that burnt down his parents' home in Duffy.
With a glittering record such as that – and 2½ years remaining before his first five-year term is up – we think it's too early to write off Lawler's ACC tenure as a flop. But the clock is ticking.