Crime figure went to Christmas party for customs officers

A CRIME figure convicted this year of smuggling drugs through Sydney Airport with the help of allegedly corrupt customs officers attended a customs Christmas party last year.

Fairfax can also reveal that Australia's powerful police corruption watchdog is running a covert inquiry - Taskforce Natio - into corruption in all the nation's airports and ports. This highlights just how deep the problems in customs are and the scale of efforts that will be needed to address them.

The federal government's handling of the customs corruption scandal is also under fresh attack from the opposition, which says the government has failed to ensure customs had proper anti-corruption oversight.

It was revealed this week that allegedly corrupt customs officers at Sydney Airport have been smuggling drugs and taking bribes.

The opposition's latest attack is centred on a speech in June 2006 by Labor's then shadow attorney general, Nicola Roxon.

In the speech, she described as a ''massive failure'' the Coalition's decision not to put customs under the watch of the nation's police corruption agency, the Australian Commission for Law Enforcement Integrity (ACLEI).

''It is not only a dumb policy but also dumb politically,'' she said during her 2006 federal parliamentary speech, in which she highlighted ''corrupt and criminal activity at Sydney Airport''.

The opposition has said that when it won government in 2007, Labor failed to give ACLEI the power to investigate corruption in customs for more than three years - a period in which the allegedly corrupt customs airport cell entrenched its activities.

When ACLEI was finally granted the power to investigate customs in January 2011, it immediately launched Operation Marca, which is targeting airport corruption.

The Minister for Home Affairs, Jason Clare, this week announced that former judge James Wood, former NSW police commissioner Ken Moroney and former TNT chief executive David Mortimer would form a panel to combat customs corruption.

ACLEI's Taskforce Natio has spent at least six months using star chamber powers - in which suspects must answer questions honestly in a confidential hearing or risk jail - and phone taps to investigate corruption on the waterfront and airports across Australia.

It is believed to be probing dozens of allegedly corrupt customs officials and has sent small teams of investigators across the country to pursue leads.

Pressure continues to mount on the Customs Service amid ongoing revelations of misconduct and corruption in its ranks.

In response to questions about the attendance of a crime figure at a customs Christmas party last year, the acting chief executive, Michael Pezzullo, told Fairfax that officers who knew about such activity and did not report it could face termination or other disciplinary measures.

It is believed that Facebook pictures of the Christmas party show customs officials in the company of the crime figure.

That crime figure was arrested in August for smuggling drugs through the airport and bribing a customs officer, and he pleaded guilty to these charges.

Customs' handling of the corruption scandal was strongly criticised on Friday by independent senator Nick Xenophon, who raised the case of customs officer turned whistleblower Allan Kessing.

In 2002 and 2003, Mr Kessing wrote two internal reports warning of crime and corruption at Sydney Airport. After they were ignored by his customs bosses, Mr Kessing briefed the then Labor opposition transport spokesman, Anthony Albanese.

In 2005, Mr Kessing was convicted of leaking the reports to the media, a charge he has steadfastly denied.

This week, a six-month Fairfax investigation - conducted in association with the ABC's 7.30 - has revealed the existence of dozens of suspected corrupt customs officers at Sydney Airport and on the waterfront.

GOT A TIP? nmckenzie@fairfaxmedia.com.au

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