In early February 2005, an extraordinary scene unfolded inside the Kent Street offices of the highly secretive NSW Crime Commission.
In the presence of several police officers, kilograms of cocaine were being bagged up by a drug dealer in preparation for sale on the streets of Sydney and Melbourne.
The dealer, codenamed Tom, was even allowed to bring along his own special equipment - a kind of vacuum-bag sealer described later in evidence as a "compression kit".
While one officer videotaped the scene, Tom spent 15 to 30 minutes preparing the drugs for sale.
Overseeing what later would become known as Operation Mocha was Mark Standen, the Crime Commission's chief of investigations, who was charged this week with international drug trafficking.
Evidence given later in a magistrate's court about the way Standen ran his end of Operation Mocha provides a glimpse into the commission's secretive and unorthodox world, and does much to explain why Standen had a cowboy reputation in legal and crime circles.
One lawyer told the Herald his clients used to refer to Standen as God because of the untrammelled power he seemed to exercise.
|Gotcha ... Mara / South Coast Register|
As a financier, Tom was responsible for the $24 million payment to the supplier of a previous shipment of cocaine. He also advised on Swiss bank accounts for others in the syndicate.
In a March 2006 court case, Tom explained his reasons for turning informer. "I'd had a gutful of my involvement with one particular person … I was so tortured emotionally. That prompted me to make the decision to contact the authorities," he said.
Standen informed his superior, the head of the commission, Phillip Bradley, of the contact. On February 2, 2005, Bradley and Standen briefed the then deputy NSW police commissioner, Andrew Scipione, about their plan to allow seven kilograms of cocaine, which Tom had buried in bushland at Wahroonga, to be sold by Tom so that the syndicate's supply network could be targeted as well.
|Crime Commission head Phil Bradley approved the operation, in which |
the drugs came from underworld figure Michael Hurley.
It was decided at the meeting that the Australian Federal Police, prohibited by regulation from involving its police in such operations where drugs are not under their control, would concentrate on another importation due in March.
Operation Mocha went smoothly until May 2004, when Hurley was tipped off that Tom was working with the commission. Statewide arrests followed, but Hurley and Mara had fled.
During the ensuing court cases, details of the decision of the commission to allow Tom to sell the cocaine came to light.
Under cross-examination by one of the defence barristers, Graham Turnbull, Standen was asked about his decision to allow Tom to bag up the drugs for sale inside the commission premises.
Mr Turnbull: Was there any particular authority required for you do that at the Crime Commission; did someone have to sanction it?
Did you tell [Crime Commission boss] Mr Bradley that's what you were going to do?
- I may have, I don't recall.
Would it be fair to say that its highly unusual for drugs to be prepared for sale inside the Crime Commission office?
- Definitely unusual.
Before the issuing of a controlled operation authority?
- Before or after, it's still unusual.
When was it decided that that course of action would take place?
- I don't recall … likely to have been the evening before, but I don't recall.
Is there anywhere where you would have recorded that decision?
Was it something that had been foreshadowed to the Commissioner at any stage before it occurred?
- I don't think so.
Unsuccessfully, the defence tried to have the approval to sell the cocaine declared invalid on the grounds that the sale of prohibited drugs was a serious offence, and because the sale of cocaine was likely to seriously harm its users.
Asked how he addressed the health concerns he acknowledged, Standen replied: "There are no recorded deaths from cocaine use, which is one of the things we researched."
The magistrate, David Heilpern, expressed "some amazement" at this response from Standen, who admitted the AFP had expressed an in-principle objection to the drugs being sold. Quizzed on why the AFP declined involvement in the sale of the cocaine, Standen initially said it was because federal police decided to leave it to state police, then later said word had " filtered down" to him that the AFP objected in principle.
Behind the scenes, federal police were furious. Not only were the drugs never recovered, the AFP hierarchy considered the commission's approach cavalier.
For about a year, the federal police commissioner, Mick Keelty, refused to attend crime commission meetings, despite being one of only four people on its management committee.
Perhaps the AFP had other reasons to be angry with the crime commission.
As Standen sat in the witness box that March 2006 day - giving evidence about a drug conspiracy he had been instrumental in dismantling - the AFP already had been tipped off about his alleged involvement in his own drug importation plan.