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Sydney Morning Herald editorial on Gersten

11 September 2001

A facet of US culture we don't want to emulate


Australian authorities continue to help the FBI carry out a blatant miscarriage of justice, writes John Macgregor.


Many Australians have been dismayed, this past year, to read the story of former Florida senator Joe Gersten, who is now a Sydney lawyer. In Miami in 1992, after stumbling upon official corruption, the reformist politician was framed by his political enemies, who included the Federal Bureau of Investigation. When we read of such happenings in distant places, we often say to ourselves - perhaps subliminally - "Thank God it couldn't happen here".


Sadly, however, Australian authorities have actively pursued Joe Gersten since he arrived here in 1993.


In March the US Congress released a report on the Gersten scandal. It states that, throughout the 1990s, "the US Government - through the State Department and the FBI - has provided the Australian Government with information about Gersten. At a minimum, some of the conclusions provided to the Australian Government appear to be erroneous."
 
To call a spade a spade, the FBI supplied documents on Gersten to the Australian Federal Police, which characterised him as "corrupt" and as having warrants pending for his arrest. No evidence was advanced to support these claims, for none existed. At the FBI's behest, the AFP handed these fictions to the Department of Immigration and Multicultural Affairs (DIMA) and the NSW Law Society.
 
DIMA used the "information" as a basis for denying Gersten Australian residency. The Law Society used it as a ground for seeking to strike him from the roll of NSW solicitors. Gersten took them both to court.
 
The immigration matter is still before the High Court.
 
The Law Society won a victory against Gersten last week, when the NSW Supreme Court declined to "pierce" a Florida court order against Gersten which led to the move against him in NSW. That is, the Supreme Court refused to consider the abuse of process which lay behind the Florida court order.
 
That abuse is well-documented in the US congressional report. Indeed, the report's title is "The Joseph Gersten case: a study of the abuse of government power". It concludes: "It appear[s] that ... someone was involved in an effort to frame Gersten for crimes he did not commit," and that "the vast power of the state was used to destroy him."
 
Since the report's publication, the FBI has acknowledged that its claims about Gersten were untrue.
 
That the AFP took these claims at face value, and waged a vigorous campaign against Gersten at the FBI's urging, raises questions about the nature of the US-Australia relationship. Would the AFP have done the same had such documents come from the security agencies of Lithuania, or Malaysia?
 
Gersten will now appeal against the NSW judgment, and the process may drag on for more years. The Law Society has spent a great deal of money and staked more than a little of its credibility, on its campaign to rid the legal community of Gersten.
 
This is an ill-advised crusade, and brings discredit on the society, which is well-aware of the circumstances of Gersten's purge from office in Florida.
 
In the course of the purported 1992 scandal, Gersten's assets, reputation and family were destroyed. His friends were stood over: one was hospitalised with a heart attack. Former girlfriends were visited by the FBI in the middle of the night and interrogated. Several people were driven from their jobs, even their careers - merely because they knew him.
 
In June a document obtained by the Herald became the centrepiece of a day-long hearing in the US Congress: it suggested that the FBI had paid a witness to incriminate Gersten in a murder.
 
In civic and political matters, the US often serves as a model for other Western countries. However, a system of law enforcement which has become a law unto itself is not an example Australia should emulate.
 
We need to extend vigilance over our own police agencies - lest we, too, allow a situation where law enforcement can destroy a civic leader or legislator who threatens its interests.
 
Above all, we should not be carrying out the instructions of corrupt foreign law enforcement agencies - whether they are from Zimbabwe, Colombia or the US.
 
It would be simple and politically painless for the Minister for Immigration, Philip Ruddock, to grant Gersten his long-awaited Australian residency.
 
It would end a nine-year nightmare for Gersten, would avoid further cost to the Australian taxpayer and would restore a little of Australia's reputation for independence on the international stage.
 
John Macgregor was last week given the George Munster Award for Independent Journalism for a series of articles on the political destruction of Joe Gersten, published in the Herald.


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