The NSW Bar Council has cautioned ICAC barrister Geoffrey Watson QC after the council found him to have engaged in unsatisfactory professional conduct when he made statements in a newspaper about “the bloody Liberal Party”.
It stems from a complaint lodged almost two years ago by former NSW resources minister Chris Hartcher, about an AFR article by Geoffrey Winstock.
The article refers to an ICAC inquiry known as Operation Credo, before the findings had been made public. Watson had breached a rule prohibiting barristers from taking step towards having the media publish material about their current cases.
“I have done all these cases involving the Labor Party, the police associations ... boy, they are hard. But I have never known anybody to kick and scratch more than the bloody Liberal Party,” Watson was quoted as saying.
The article said that Watson had been known to enter the ICAC press room on a hearing day and say “Gee, isn’t this fun!” Watson told the bar he didn’t recall making the statement but didn’t deny that he could have.
“And if I said the proceedings were ‘fun’, it was likely to have been an ironic remark because I did not regard the proceedings as ‘fun’ at all — I regarded each day as a kind of poorly paid living hell,” his letter to the bar in response said.
There had been no substantial complaints against Watson in over 30 years so the Bar Council considered a caution to be appropriate.
The caution means that Watson, who has been the public face of the commission in a series of high-profile hearings, has fended off the possibility of a more serious penalty and can continue to practise. According to a report by The Australian
, the ruling said Watson had persuaded the Bar to drop a proposal to take the charges to the NSW Civil and Administrative Tribunal.
Watson told the council that he believed he was speaking in “circumstances where I understood what I said would not be published”. But the council considered this response to be unreasonable. “Whilst the barrister advised he informed Mr Winestock that a ‘ground rule’ was that he would not comment on Oeration Credo, he clearly did make such a comment,” the ruling said. “[He] does nto deny that he made the comments, he says that he was responding to a matter in which his integrity was challenged.”
“The barrister did not advise that he had informed Mr Winestock that any comments were to not be reported,” the ruling said.
“The Bar Council is of the view that a reasonable person would consider that comments made to a journalist, who had informed the person that an article about him was going to be written, would likely result in the publication of those comments.’’ It says while “the conduct constitutes unsatisfactory professional conduct … it falls well short of (the more serious charge of) professional misconduct in its quality”.