May 19, 2016

Civil servant arrested for publishing book of already-public information


Further dispatches from Australia, the Florida of the world

It’s not hard to get arrested for writing (or publishing) books.

It happens when the government doesnt like the cut of your anti-communist jib. It happens when you build a snake oil empire. And, of course, it happens when you dont actually deliver the publishing services you were paid to provide.

And now, it has happened again, this time in Australia. However, nobody quite seems sure why, including the presiding judge. Christopher Knaus reports for the Canberra Times:

An expert public service fraud investigator who published a helpful guide to government departments was charged with disclosing sensitive information, despite basing the book entirely on publicly available content.

The bizarre case came before Magistrate Peter Dingwall for sentencing on Thursday, and he had no hesitation in making a non-conviction order for the long-serving senior public servant.

“This is one of the clearest cases for [acquittal] that I’ve seen in my 26 years being here,” Mr. Dingwall said.

The defendant, a longtime public servant with considerable experience in fraud investigation who is not named in the article, faced a possible two years imprisonment on charges of “disclosing sensitive Commonwealth information.” His book, the spellbindingly-titled Australian Public Service Fraud Investigation, was written as a guide for public servants in charge of similar investigations. And while the book’s contents drew on his experience, it contained no proprietary or otherwise un-public information. This, however, did not stop local authorities from seeing through the obviously nefarious scheme.

His barrister Ken Archer said the allegations against his client were effectively that he breached intellectual property of the department.

“Your Honour will see from the documents that they are documents that are essentially, in my respectful submission, distilled from publicly available documents,” he said.

The book sold 27 copies, before the department issued an objection.

Twenty-seven copies.  That’s fifty-four eyes, give or take, incapable of unseeing this deeply private information—where “deeply private,” again, means “completely public.” The defendant reports that the criminal proceedings have forced him to quit his job and seek psychiatric assistance.

Magistrate Dingwall’s decision to acquit came as little surprise, considering prosecutors’ inability to demonstrate any harm done by the disclosures—or, for that matter, any wrongdoing of any other kind. (Like, say, if this man had used his position in government to intimidate people into buying copies.) If this story proves one thing, it’s that Australians are a lot like us, in that they also sometimes have trouble keeping track of important public documents.



Liam O’Brien is the Senior Sales & Marketing Manager at Melville House, and a former bookseller.