Natalie O'Brien August 19, 2012
Bruce Wilson, Julia Gillard's former boyfriend. Photo: Joe Wheeler
A well-told tale - with some new twists - is returning to haunt Julia Gillard.
It is a lurid tale involving an old political cartoonist, a retired lawyer, the Prime Minister and her former boyfriend, an alleged fraudster.
If you believe the cartoonist, Larry Pickering, whose dislike for Julia Gillard is palpable in his sometimes obscene cartoons, the scandalous details could finally bring down the Prime Minister.
But if you don't buy the claims Pickering is peddling about Ms Gillard when she was a Slater & Gordon lawyer acting for her then lover, Bruce Wilson - an alleged embezzler of Australian Workers Union funds - why hasn't she done anything to stop his vitriolic missives?
The case became even more intriguing yesterday when a former Slater & Gordon equity lawyer, Nick Styant-Browne, told The Australian that Ms Gillard had lost her job after an internal investigation by the law firm into work she had done for Mr Wilson. He said that, in a recorded interview, Ms Gillard said she could not categorically rule out she had personally benefited from union funds in the renovation of her home - although she believed she had paid for all the work and produced receipts. Mr Styant-Browne said the partners took a very serious view about the matter ''and accepted her resignation''.
A spokesman for Ms Gillard said yesterday that she had ''made it clear that she was not involved in any wrongdoing, and has dealt with these allegations previously''.
This story has dogged Ms Gillard over and over again since it was first raised under privilege in the Victorian Parliament in October 1995. At the time, she denied any wrongdoing and said she was still a partner at Slater & Gordon and ''had no intention of leaving''. Within months of the matters being raised by the then Victorian minister for industry and employment, Phil Gude, she had resigned and left the firm.
By 2007, when the issues were raised again, she was about to become the deputy prime minister. She said in a candid interview that she was ''young and naive'' when she fell for Bruce Morton Wilson, the alleged conman who is accused of siphoning off $500,000 in union funds while he was the AWU secretary in Western Australia and Victoria in the early 1990s.
''I was in a relationship, which I ended, and obviously it was all very distressing,'' she told the veteran political journalist Glenn Milne. ''I am by no means the first person to find out that someone close turns out to be different to what you had believed them to be. It's an ordinary human error.''
AWU officials blew the whistle on the alleged fraud in 1995 after discovering numerous unauthorised bank accounts in the name of the union allegedly set up by Mr Wilson. They complained to police in Western Australia and Victoria but no charges were ever laid. In Victoria, police had said there was not enough evidence. When the stories resurfaced yet again last year in a column by Milne, with a suggestion that Ms Gillard had unknowingly benefited from the alleged wrongdoing of Mr Wilson, she threatened legal action - and Milne was swiftly removed as a columnist with The Australian.
Yet for weeks now, Pickering has been publishing a running commentary, a veritable soap opera, entitled Is the Prime Minister a Crook? It is published on his website, The Pickering Post, which he also emails to a large list of subscribers. It makes allegations that are much worse than those aired in Milne's column.
Pickering goes as far as to say the Prime Minister was sacked as a partner with Slater & Gordon. Slater & Gordon says she resigned and her resignation was accepted. Peter Gordon, who Pickering says did the pushing, now works for himself. He did not return The Sun-Herald's calls.
Pickering's storyline has become grubbier and more personal. By his own admission, he uses a lot of poetic licence. He embellishes this with salacious details about Ms Gillard and Mr Wilson's relationship, and he drops some of the nations biggest names in construction and politics.
''I have used melodrama,'' Pickering tells The Sun-Herald. ''That is what gets people in and gets them interested.''
It has certainly spiked the interest of radio stalwarts Derryn Hinch, Alan Jones and Steve Price, and the columnist Andrew Bolt.
Pickering's instalments start with the likes of, ''Julia Gillard was in tears when she called Bruce Wilson …'' or ''Julia wandered aimlessly around her Abbotsford home. She had been unemployed for almost six months after being sacked from Slater & Gordon …''
Most of the mainstream media have avoided the story with the exception of The Australian, which has shown a renewed interest in the allegations. Although Ms Gillard was asked about it in a media doorstop last week, she remained composed and batted off the questions. She has not responded to questions from The Sun-Herald about Pickering's blog or whether she will take action against him.
But in Melbourne last week, Hinch broadcast an interview with Pickering discussing the latest revelations, much of them based on the work of Harry Nowicki, a retired lawyer who once worked for the former Builders Labourers Federation, and who has been researching his book on the AWU.
It has been Mr Nowicki's extensive inquiries about the AWU scandal that led him to discover another major player, the now self-confessed bent union organiser Ralph Blewitt. Mr Blewitt, who lives in Asia, has said he wants to come clean about his role in the alleged fraud with Mr Wilson, which involved scamming hundreds of thousands of dollars from building companies including Thiess Contracting, John Holland, Fluor Daniel and Woodside.
Blewitt has told The Australian he would tell all he knows about the scams, no matter who it embarrasses - if he is given indemnity from prosecution.
Mr Nowicki has also enlisted the Victorian barrister and former head of the National Crime Authority, Peter Faris, QC, and asked him to review the details of the case, and the role of Slater & Gordon. The report will be given to the Law Institute of Victoria.
Mr Nowicki has been using freedom of information to get access to the police files about the investigations into the fraud.
The documents show that West Australian police wanted to prosecute the men for the fraud but were thwarted because they could not get the company they believed to be the biggest victim, Thiess Contracting, to agree to file a police complaint.
The head of Thiess at the time was Mr Wilson's brother-in-law, Joe Trio, and the documents show that he told police he did not believe the company had been defrauded.
Mr Trio comes in for some serious allegations in Pickering's Post, but he told The Sun-Herald last week he was at the moment ignoring it as just the ravings of union thugs.
He said the allegations about his involvement were ''garbage and a load of nonsense''. When asked why he had not taken action to stop Pickering, Mr Trio said he would not rule it out.
Slater & Gordon, however, is anxious to clear its reputation and will ask the AWU to release it from client confidentiality.
Andrew Grech, Slater & Gordon's managing director, said the allegations related to matters that took place 17 to 20 years ago and were conducted by lawyers who left the firm in 1995.
''We hope that we are released from our obligations of confidentially so that we can speak freely about these matters,'' he said.
Paul Howes, the national secretary of the AWU, said he would consider that matter when asked by Slater & Gordon.
Pickering, meanwhile, is vowing to continue. He says he is being provided with the intimate details by people who want the truth to finally come out. Among them, he says, are former unionists, former employees of Mr Wilson and some members and former members of the Labor Party.
''I get a lot of people sending me stuff and calling me up.''
Pickering said he was not surprised that Ms Gillard had not taken legal action against him, but wishes she would. ''It would open a can of worms,'' he said.
However, he said his website was suffering an increasing number of cyber attacks trying to shut it down. On Friday the attacks were successful and his account was suspended.
''They may silence us for a while but the truth will out,'' Pickering says. ''Much more to come.''
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