The corruption watchdog has launched a probe into one of the state’s most senior officers over allegations of imprudent spending and misuse of public funds.
The Corruption and Crime Commission has launched a probe into one of the state’s most senior officers over allegations of imprudent spending and misuse of public funds.
A three-day public hearing into the alleged misconduct of Western Australian ombudsman Chris Field is under way before the CCC.
In her opening address, CCC assisting counsel Kirsten Nelson said the inquiry would focus on Mr Field’s decision to use public resources for extensive international travel over the past few years.
Ms Nelson said the CCC’s investigation into Mr Field’s conduct started in September 2023.
Mr Field denied he spent more than $220,000 for his international travels in the financial year ending June 2023, claiming the number was "definitely not correct" during the CCC inquiry today.
The ombudsman, also known as the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administrative Investigations, oversees the public sector administrative decision and individuals who may be affected from the process.
Mr Field was appointed as the WA ombudsman in March 2007, and was reappointed to the role for a further five-year term in early 2022.
Former attorney-general Christian Porter is Mr Field’s legal representative for the CCC inquiry.
Mr Field will be examined about his responsibilities within the Office of the Ombudsman of WA (OWA) for imprudent spending and managing finances, his approval of expenditure for travel, the procurement practice within the OWA, recruitment practices, and other matters concerning governance, Ms Nelson said.
“It is an inquiry into whether Mr Field corruptly took advantage of his appointment as ombudsman to obtain a benefit for himself, for a colleague and for the International Ombudsman Institute (IOI) and its members,” she said.
“The inquiry will also focus on the decision by Mr Field to spend public resources on activities for the benefit of the IOI.
“Mr Field is accountable for how he uses the resources of the state.”
The CCC grilled Mr Field on his FY22-23 international travel expenditure, which he repeatedly claimed was only about $85,000 despite the OWA recording a $233,429 spend for the ombudsman.
"The correct numbers for FY22-23 international travel are those which have been tabled and reported to the Parliament of Western Australia," he said.
"These figures here are put together by our excellent accounting team but what I think might have happened… there might be a travel return in the previous financial year that has been put forward a financial year.
"It is the case my international travel for FY22-23 is as it appears in the quarterly returns that have been tabled in parliament which I have signed and sworn true, and it’s not that number."
Mr Field had conflicting responses when asked whether his office follows the Ombudsman Strategic Plan 2022-2025 document.
In frustration, Mr McKechnie asked “Do you follow the strategic plan or not?”.
“We follow the [Parliamentary Commissioner] Act,” Mr Field said.
“Well, that’s obvious, but do you follow the strategic plan or not? It’s a very simple question,” Mr McKechnie said.
Mr Field said the OWA did follow the strategic plan but not in the same way as the legislation.
However, Mr Field subsequently told Ms Nelson that the document did not apply to him.
“About ten minutes ago, you finally answered the question, saying yes,” Mr McKechnie said.
“Now you’re saying that you don’t. What is the position?”
Mr Field said the strategic plan did not show the most important steps of running the office and only broadly outlined his functions as ombudsman.
When asked whether he attended the office from Monday to Friday, Mr Field was also reluctant to confirm or deny.
“Some of those [days] I will and some of that I won’t be,” he said.
“Do you attend the office regularly Monday to Friday?,” Ms Nelson asked again.
“As in, am I physically in? I am physically in the office and work from home as well,” Mr Field said.
“I work from home extensively on the weekends. I also work from home in what would be called core business hours.”
Mr Field admitted he only went in the office for a couple of days in the recent fortnight, only twice in 10 business days.
During the inquiry, Mr Field admitted that his deputy had only assumed his role while he was overseas only once during his time as WA ombudsman, despite the relevant legislation.
Under the law, the deputy commissioner must assume the ombudsman’s responsibilities if they are absent from the state.
Mr Field said it only happened when he travelled to Bahrain late last year.
“I took the view that absent from the state meant that for whatever reason that physically I could not do my job ... with laptop, mobile, technology, there is nothing that I would be required to do under the Act that couldn’t be done by me whether I’m in Perth, Kalgoorlie or South Australia as it would be in Kiev,” he said.
“I took that view in that time, I may be wrong, but it was absolutely a good faith interpretation at the time.”
When questioned whether he had a reinterpretation of the provision before his trip to Bahrain, Mr Field disagreed.
“I wanted to avoid any further matters that may be detrimental to the ombudsman office,” he said.
“Not because I thought it was the right thing to do.”
Mr Field also admitted he never sought permission from the premier whenever he took leave.
The CCC inquiry is scheduled to end by Thursday afternoon.