New SFO head no publicity seeker

Last updated 15:33 10/12/2013
julie read
NEW SFO BOSS: Given her role as an outsider, Julie Read is wary of making rash decisions and is taking some time to get the lay of the land.

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The new head of the Serious Fraud Office (SFO) is no stranger to difficult and dangerous cases.

She's prosecuted a major case of bribes being paid to Saddam Hussein's Iraqi officials and a key witness was murdered during the investigation.

Tasmanian-born Julie Read was appointed director of the SFO in September, and began her new job last month.

Read kept a low profile in her native Australia. A search of news reports throws up references to her in only a handful of stories despite her decade with the Australian Securities and Investment Commission (ASIC), including a stint as special counsel heading litigation, following 10 years as an Australian Commonwealth fraud prosecutor.

The lack of publicity comes from taking the role of prosecutor seriously and doing her speaking through the courts, she said.

"Our obligation is to present the case to the court, not to advocate in the way a defence counsel would," Read said.

"Ours has to be very straight and unbiased, therefore we don't court publicity. It's a position I find quite comfortable."

One case she does take credit for, but until now hasn't been publicly linked to, is the torturous probe of the Australian Wheat Board's (AWB) paying of bribes to circumvent United Nations sanctions of Iraq in the early 2000s.

Read headed what she repeatedly describes as a "difficult" investigation and prosecution of the case.

The United Nations found the wheat board's kickbacks to Iraqi officials - totalling A$227.1 million ($229.4 million) and labelled as "inland transportation costs" - made up 14 per cent of all bribes paid to the Iraqi government while sanctions were in force.

"It was slightly difficult politically - there were enormous political expectations I suppose, but not overtly," she said.

"No one comes to you and says it directly, it's far more subtle than that.

"And difficult because one of our main witnesses was found shot dead by the side of the road in Iraq. That's not easy.

"AWB weren't very helpful, I think it's fair to say.

"Read the Cole Inquiry. They tried to corral everyone, and train all their witnesses up to sing from the same hymn sheet."

The case is ongoing despite Read winding up the investigation stage at the end of 2007, and civil cases were filed by ASIC against six former directors and officers of AWB. Some have resulted in findings of breached duties, while other are still live.

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The Australian Federal Police dropped their case in 2009, leaving Read's ASIC the only regulatory agency still in the running.

"I would say I was most proud of that investigation, but not necessarily because of the results that it achieved, but because it was done really efficiently and effectively in what was a really difficult environment," Read said.

Having regularly visited New Zealand over the past two decades - with the Christchurch earthquakes delaying the purchase of a South Island holiday home - Read has settled into life in Auckland with her retired parliamentary clerk husband and two beagles.

Given her role as an outsider, Read is wary of making rash decisions and is taking some time to get the lay of the land.

Having met counterparts in the public sector in Wellington, she is aware she will need to shed her publicity shy nature and reach out to the business community.

"I've still got to work a bit more on the private sector," she concedes.

She is also committed to upholding New Zealand's rankings as one of the least corrupt countries on earth, and believes Transparency International's assessment in its Corruption Perceptions Index is correct despite a recent uptick in corruption prosecutions.

"My very early impressions - that is the difficulty for me as it's really early days - is that what we're seeing is probably more the result of awareness and therefore people dobbing it in rather than it having always been there and we've just been pretending its not," she said.

"It's important for people to understand that it won't be tolerated. That's the way to maintain that ranking."

- Fairfax Media

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