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‘The Bermuda Triangle of police files’: How Simon Overland’s diaries were lost and found

“The fact that the diaries of the highest-ranking officer in the state were dumped in a box labelled ‘miscellaneous’ and simply forgotten tells you everything.”

It was late December 2019 and former top cop Overland was in the witness box for his first time at the Nicola Gobbo royal commission, telling his version of how the worst legal scandal in Victorian history unfolded.

But his memory was hazy about who had been told what and when regarding the controversial decision to use the barrister as a police informer. He has denied knowing Gobbo was informing on her own clients.

Simon Overland outside the royal commission

Simon Overland outside the royal commissionCredit:Jason South

Surely, Overland would have recorded whether he’d told his then superior, chief commissioner of police Christine Nixon, about the existence of such a risky but well-placed supergrass, he was asked by counsel assisting the commissioner, Chris Winneke, QC.

“Did you keep a diary … Did you keep a day book of sorts?”

“No, I didn’t … No, I didn’t,” Overland replied.

There was no reason to disbelieve him.

Investigators from Taskforce Landow, a 117-person team of police and support staff that manages the force’s response to the royal commission, had officially confirmed 10 months before that no such diaries existed.

But in an office across the city, Overland’s testimony had sparked a memory in his former chief-of-staff, now Deputy Commissioner of Police, Shane Patton.

When Overland resigned in 2011 in the midst of a scandal, Patton had overseen the cleanout of his boss’ office. At the time, he’d noted in his own diary that among the paperwork sent for storage was a series of police-issued diaries, known as PB13s.

The week before Overland took the stand, Patton had been reviewing his own diaries from that time, but he didn’t twig to the significance until Overland was being grilled about his record-keeping practices.

Patton informed Taskforce Landow and behind the scenes – as Overland’s testimony before the royal commission rolled on – a frantic search for the diaries began.

A team of investigators was dispatched to the Archive Services Centre, spending days ripping through more than 200 boxes before three diaries were discovered packed away with the paperwork from another officer in a carton labelled “miscellaneous”.

A fourth diary now known to exist was not located.

Late on the afternoon of Overland’s last day on the stand, the find was announced at the royal commission.

“They’ve only been in possession of Taskforce Landow for about an hour and a half,” Saul Holt, QC, counsel for Victoria Police, said.

“It’s hard to see how that situation could be avoided but for better record-keeping when they were archived. That’s the position. That’s as much information as I give.”

“Consistent with, well, not the best of record-keeping,” commissioner Margaret McMurdo responded.

Police commissioner Christine Nixon and her deputy Simon Overland at a press conference in 2007.

Police commissioner Christine Nixon and her deputy Simon Overland at a press conference in 2007.Credit:Mario Borg

The explosive contents of the diaries would not be aired for another month, forcing Overland to dramatically revise his testimony of events when the royal commission commenced in 2020.

A brief notation – “Meeting with (Chief Commission of Police) – Purana Re: 3838” – from September 29,  2005, led to Overland now putting his former boss Christine Nixon directly in the gun.

“So my recollection – well, it’s not my recollection, but my belief is I spoke to the chief commissioner about the fact that Ms Gobbo was registered as a human source by that code number,” he said.

The meeting was just a fortnight after Gobbo was recruited by police. Nixon had earlier testified she’d learnt about Gobbo’s activities in late 2018 as the Lawyer X scandal became public.

Until now, Overland had been named as the highest-ranking police officer who supposedly knew about the barrister’s secret work from 2005 to 2009.

The last-minute discovery will likely prompt Nixon to be recalled and create further havoc for a royal commission that has been plagued by repeated delays.

Victoria Police's Archive Services Centre.

Victoria Police’s Archive Services Centre.Credit:Seven

It’s also another embarrassing black eye for Victoria Police, which is spending more than $1 million a month responding to the Royal Commission into the Management of Police Informants.

Taskforce Landow is better staffed than the Purana anti-gangland taskforce was at the height of Melbourne’s bloody underworld war, the work of which is now being unravelled by revelations about Gobbo’s central and potentially corrupting role in hundreds of investigations.

That Overland was ultimately contradicted by writing in his own hand from documents that were not supposed to exist is a testament to Victoria Police’s institutional obsession with making and keeping records.

Rank-and-file police are obliged to keep all documents produced in the course of their duties, which are supposed to be tracked and stored under strict guidelines.

In reality, while the Archive Services Centre can be a treasure trove of information for investigators, navigating its byzantine-to-non-existent filing system can be a nightmare.

“It is a Bermuda Triangle,” one detective, who cannot be identified speaking about police business, said.

“VicPol has too many systems. The admin staff are not trained properly and when members start out, and even along the way, we are given minimal if any training on how the admin systems work and how things are supposed to be recorded.”

That such key documents as Overland’s diaries would only be found, apparently accidentally, at the tail end of the biggest inquiry into police misconduct in generations speaks to the force’s deeply problematic history with the quality of its record-keeping.

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Victoria Police has been rebuked by multiple independent and internal reviews about its information management and storage practices.

And it’s not the first time a key piece of evidence has been unearthed at the Archive Services Centre that has upended the royal commission and provided stark new details about police’s secret history with the barrister-turned-informer.

In June 2018, as Victoria Police was preparing for the possibility that Gobbo’s work as informer from 2005 to 2009 would become public following a series of failed court bids to keep it secret, detectives stumbled across an informer registration card dating back to 1995.

The revelation would not be shared with the Andrews government before it launched the royal commission six months later.

Deeply embarrassed, the government was forced to expand the commission’s terms of reference by more than a decade and replace its commissioner – a former Victoria deputy police commissioner from the 1990s – to avoid perceptions of a conflict of interest.

“We have previously acknowledged shortcomings in our record-keeping practices in the 1990s and 2000s. These have since been improved, but there is no doubt these shortcomings have at times hindered Landow’s efforts to locate documents and provide them,” a police spokesman said.

Landow has so far searched through more than 3000 archive boxes, reviewed hundreds of thousands of pages, and provided almost 90,000 documents to the royal commission.

“Victoria Police is fully committed to working co-operatively and transparently with the royal commission,” the spokesman said.

But sources familiar with the operation of the Archive Services Centre say it’s “definitely possible” that more information about the secret history of Nicola Gobbo’s work as a prized informer may still be uncovered in the stacks.

“There is so much material and so little of it is properly catalogued, especially the older the files get,” a former archivist says. “They don’t know what they don’t know.”

There is already the open question of what happened to Overland’s fourth known diary book.

The search continues.

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