The Queensland Court of Appeal ruled on 3 December that a 2010 letter that well-known police corruption whistleblower Rick Flori had written to the state oversight body now referred to as the Crime and Corruption Commission (CCC) was a valid public interest disclosure.
This means that Flori should have been protected – under the provisions of the Whistleblowers Protections Act 1994 (QLD) – from the workplace bullying he’d been subjected to. And this ruling has also left it open for him to seek damages for those reprisals, which was his initial intention.
The former Gold Coast police sergeant was appealing a decision handed down by the state Supreme Court back in May, when Justice Helen Bowskill determined that no act of official misconduct had been committed, and therefore Flori was not protected as a whistleblower.
Mr Flori had submitted his disclosure, as he and other colleagues were concerned that a female officer was receiving preferential treatment, after two officers allegedly witnessed her performing a sexual act upon a male colleague in the district duty officer’s police vehicle in a carpark.
An unpunished crime
Prior to his successful appeal last week, Mr Flori had already earnt himself the reputation of being an “honest cop”. And this was in relation to his allegedly exposure of an unprovoked 2012 bashing of an innocent man by four police officers in the basement of the Surfers Paradise police station.
Then 21-year-old local chef Noa Begic was handcuffed when officers set upon him. They slammed his head into a concrete floor, tossed him into the back of a paddy wagon, and laid into him, while one of the officers held his legs.
This serious assault was captured on CCTV footage. And even though it can easily be watched online, only one of the officers involved was ever disciplined over the incident. And the only person charged in relation to it was Flori for allegedly leaking the footage.
However, in February last year, a District Court jury acquitted the father-of-three of misconduct in public office, which is an offence that could have seen him sent to prison for up to seven years. Although, by that stage, Flori had already quit the Queensland Police Service (QPS) the year prior.
As Queensland Court of Appeal Justice Hugh Fraser set out in the court’s full findings last week, the relevant Queensland laws should protect Flori for blowing the whistle on behaviour that he believed on reasonable grounds was official misconduct.
And while determining whether an act is official misconduct should be left up to a court, a whistleblower should still be protected from reprisals, as state laws have been passed to encourage the exposure of corruption, rather than punish those who set out to do just that.
Sydney Criminal Lawyers spoke to Mr Flori about the reprisals he’d suffered as a result of blowing the whistle, the skewed logic behind the original court decision, and why the outcome of his appeal has much wider implications than those that directly affect him.
Firstly, a Queensland Court of Appeal three justice panel handed down a judgement, which upheld that a letter you sent to the CCC in February 2010 was indeed a public interest disclosure about official police misconduct.
This means that you were protected against the reprisals that you suffered in the workplace following the disclosure, and you’re now free to proceed with civil action against officers that subjected you to bullying.
Mr Flori, how do you feel about the court finally vindicating your original claim? And what does this mean for you?
The three Supreme Court judges agreeing with my argument was unbelievable. This has been a difficulty, not just for me, but for others trying to avail themselves of protections under that Act.
The Queensland Police Service and the CCC are on the same page in not recognising public interest disclosures, and therefore, not providing protections to me and others.
This case is good for everyone: the state of Queensland, the community at large. And obviously, people who are honest and reveal corruption should feel a little safer in that the provisions available to them for protection – and there’s a lot of them – are more likely to be given to them now.
It’s a landmark case for everyone.
So, you say you’ve been subjected to acts of retribution after you blew the whistle on two officers over sexual conduct in a public place. What sort of bullying do you allege you suffered?
I was pursued disciplinarily. They used the public interest disclosure in an attempt to discipline me. This is a breach of the Act, because a public interest disclosure comes with confidentiality provisions.
They then pursued me criminally. And even in that case, they mentioned the public interest disclosure, which again, they can’t do.
When I took them to another Supreme Court case, during an additional process and won. They mentioned the public interest disclosure in that as well.
So, this involved the QPS solicitors in all these breaches of confidentiality about this public interest disclosure. It had been occurring for eight years.
The other thing is that with reprisals, the legislation includes attempts. One particular officer tried to get my union funding – my legal funding – withdrawn.
There were various angles and measures that they tried to put in place publicly to discredit me behind the scenes to have my funding removed.
They did everything behind the scenes to try and destroy me the whole way.
And how did you feel back in May, when it was ruled that the sexual act that others had witnessed wasn’t misconduct, and therefore, you weren’t protected by the whistleblower laws in regard to reprisals?
Obviously, it was very disappointing, because the justice had acknowledged that the allegation could amount to a criminal offence. And how in anyone’s mind that officers committing criminal offences couldn’t be considered official misconduct was just insane, which is why I went to appeal.
Having said that, the justice didn’t have some other parts of the argument that were presented to the Court of Appeal.
But, despite that the appeals court still said, even based on what was given, it should have been a public interest disclosure, and my matter shouldn’t have been dismissed. So, she’d dismissed it at that point. But now, it’s been reinstated.
So, the Supreme Court came to the decision at that time that although the police may have broken the law, they hadn’t committed official misconduct?
Yes. They argued that it wasn’t official misconduct. And official misconduct includes committing an offence, so the reasoning wasn’t sound. She said that it didn’t mean that it was a breach of trust.
But, the functions and responsibilities of police officers are very clear. And there’s a long history of them both legislatively and in precedents that they have a great deal of responsibility and functionality, so it was very disappointing.
As discussed, the initial judge found that the sexual act in the carpark did not amount to official misconduct, and therefore Queensland whistleblower laws provided you with no protection.
How would you sum up the difference in the findings the appeals court handed down last week?
The purpose of the legislation is to support and encourage people to appeal corruption. In doing that the idea is that while you may never eliminate that corruption, you have a vehicle as a means for people to bring issues forward.
And even though it may not always be super soundly based – it’s not a full brief of evidence saying they’ve done a certain thing – it allows for something to be brought forward and to have a look at it.
If it’s the wrong thing they obviously deal with it. And if it’s not, then the person who has brought it forward, should be protected. That’s the idea of the legislation.
But, there was a significant reluctance, particularly within the police service, to allow those protections. And I’m just but one example of trying to destroy someone who was willing to bring forward corruption.
It’s just extremely important that we support and allow people to bring forward corruption allegations, whether they’re founded or not: as long as they’re reasonably based, and they’re not just someone attacking someone else.
The way that the Court of Appeal has adjudicated on this is perfect, because it really does outline how you can be covered by this.
During the hearing, when the Crown was making their point, one of the judges, Justice Henry, said, “So, the person making the case would have to be Nostradamus or a lawyer.”
The Act doesn’t mean it that way. The Act provides that someone with some reasonably based information should be able to bring that forward and not be grilled over it.
So, given what you’ve just pointed out, what would you say are the broader implications of last week’s findings going into the future?
Obviously, with my case, now that the question has been determined, it’s very supportive of my argument and my civil suit. Because it’s actually been resolved, and it can no longer be an issue for the Crown.
The thing is, it also has implications for other officers in similar circumstances. One officer in particular had a disclosure declared a public interest disclosure by the CCC, and was essentially given the protections.
But, then the Ethical Standards Command, said it wasn’t a public interest disclosure and withdrew them. And subsequently, they charged him internally.
Now, even for his case, because of the reasons of the Court of Appeal judges, it is back to being a public interest disclosure and he’s back to having those protections. And that’s just one example out of several.
So, this case is really outlining how the Queensland Police Service, the CCC or any other government agency have to work out how they classify information as public interest disclosure and when they’re required to give protection. It’s fairly significant for the state.
And it also has significance for other parts of the country, because there was no precedent before this.
And of course, you’re no longer a member of the Queensland Police Service. You resigned back in 2017, following a huge scandal, which involved it being alleged that you leaked video footage showing officers brutally bashing an innocent man.
Mr Flori, you served 25 years as a Queensland police officer. How would you describe the culture that pervades the force?
Little has changed. The QPS has implemented some measures over recent years, perhaps, as a result of my actions.
But, the underlying culture still remains. And even though, we have a new police commissioner, she’s certainly showing signs that her experience gained from many years within the police service is coming straight back.
I was hopeful that things would continue to improve, but I’m not so convinced now.
And lastly, your victory in the courtroom last week, is not the end of your legal journey. What’s next in store for you? And how do you foresee it all playing out?
Obviously, my case is now reinstated. So, I’ll pursue that until the end. There are several other options open to me as well, as a result of this finding.
It really depends on how vigorously the QPS and the Crown continue to defend this indefensible case. It is really up to them on how it will unfold moving into the future.
Paul Gregoire is a Sydney-based journalist and writer. He has a focus on human rights issues, encroachments on civil liberties, drug law reform, gender diversity and First Nations rights. Prior to Sydney Criminal Lawyers®, he wrote for VICE and was the news editor at Sydney’s City Hub.