Former AFP commissioner Andrew Colvin complained in a letter to Parliament’s most senior bureaucrat that the decision to clean the ministerial suite Brittany Higgins was found in and not inform police immediately was “unacceptable”.
Commissioner Colvin’s criticism over how the matter was handled is laid bare in a letter sent to the Department of Parliamentary Services. He does not suggest criminality or a cover up – because the Department did not know of the allegation when the room was cleaned – but slams the handling of the incident.
“AFP inclusion in any initial response to the incident could have resulted in early notification of an alleged criminal offence, more appropriate handling of the alleged victims welfare and better scene management,’’ Commissioner Colvin wrote.
“It remains unclear why the AFP wasn’t notified at the time of the incident. And I contend this is unacceptable.”
News.com.au has confirmed Commissioner Colvin’s letter was also provided to a secret probe led by the former Inspector-General of Intelligence Vivienne Thom and referenced in her report that noted “disagreement” between the AFP and the Department of Parliamentary Services over the handling of the incident.
New documents have also revealed for the first time that the former director of security at Parliament House Peter Butler also told police he fought against the decision to clean the office and believed his incident report was altered.
It follows revelations at the trial of Bruce Lehrmann that the cleaner, Carlos Ramos, said he was called in to do a “special clean” on his day off and told to look for “condoms” after a woman was found naked on a couch.
No condoms were found. Bruce Lehrmann has always strongly denied the allegations, was never convicted and maintains no sexual activity occurred.
AFP commissioner Andrew Colvin: cleaning of the office “unacceptable”
The story of Australian Federal Police Commissioner Andrew Colvin’s warning to Parliament begins on September 13, 2019.
On that date, Commissioner Colvin wrote to the Department of Parliamentary Services secretary Rob Stefanic to complain about the handling of an incident where a Liberal staffer was found naked in an office six months earlier. It was, he said, “unacceptable”.
When he wrote the letter, the AFP had conducted an initial investigation after Brittany Higgins complained to police on April 1, 2019, that she had been raped.
Police had contacted Parliament, requested CCTV and reports and sought CCTV from a bar called The Dock. Ms Higgins had spoken to police at Parliament House and at the Belconnen Sexual Assault unit.
This was all years before she ever spoke to the media.
But the investigation was paused after Ms Higgins said she didn’t want to proceed after a federal election was called and she relocated to Perth.
“Recently the Australian Federal Police had cause to conduct an investigation into an incident of alleged sexual assault at Australian Parliament House and the subsequent actions undertaken by the Department of Parliamentary Services staff in the early hours of 23rd of March 2019,’’ Commissioner Colvin wrote.
“During the first welfare check, the female was located asleep and partially clothed lying on the lounge in the ministerial suite.”
He described what happened next however as “concerning”.
“Subsequently later that day the ministerial office was cleaned including the lounge,’’ he said.
“Throughout this concerning chain events, Parliamentary Security Services managed the incident as a security incident and did not notify the AFP. The incident was subsequently reported to the AFP two days later, when the female Passholder made an allegation of sexual assault.
“There are significant discrepancies between the response to this incident and the existing agreement that our agencies share. The AFP has necessarily made inquiries into the handling of the initial phase of the incident, including consideration of whether there was any criminality identified as a result of DPS actions such as any attempt to conceal or interfere with a suspected crime scene.”
However, because there was no allegation when the room was cleaned, the police determined there was no attempt to knowingly interfere with a potential crime scene.
“There was no disclosure of sexual assault made by the victim on the day of the incident, and therefore it appears any actions taken by DPS or PSS staff were not in response to a suspected crime,’’ he said.
Under the rules that govern parliament house, the Department of Parliamentary Security work closely with the AFP and inform them of security incidents. The AFP even has an office on site. But the AFP was not told of the incident until days later.
“Another issue of concern relates to the length of time it took DPS to share the incident report with the AFP incidents such as this serves to emphasise the importance of following agreed processes and practices. Divergence from these agreements can have significant consequences to potential victims, the safety of Parliament House staff.”
News.com.au contacted the Department of Parliamentary Services for a response to Commissioner Colvin’s letter. In response, the Department sent a legal letter from HWL Ebsworth lawyers.
“Our client’s position remains unchanged and they do not intend to provide comments as sought,’’ the lawyers said in a subsequent email.
Previously, the Department of Parliamentary Services provided the following response.
“We would caution against restating any false allegations which in their nature are misleading and defamatory. There is extreme risk of ongoing harm to the professional reputation of DPS staff who followed proper process that has been tested in various forums,’’ a spokesman said.
“We note that continuing media coverage of sexual assault allegations risks re-traumatising survivors of sexual abuse.”
How Commissioner Colvin’s letter was dealt with is unknown, although it resurfaced a year later in a secret report written by the former Inspector General of Intelligence Vivienne Thom.
What Peter Butler told police
There was one man who worked at Parliament House who echoed Commissioner Colvin’s concerns.
His name was Peter Butler. He was the former Director of Security at Parliament House who was in charge when the incident occurred.
But he had quit just months later, in part he claims, over how it unfolded.
A former sworn New South Wales Special Constable through his work with transit police and in the NSW Sheriff’s office, Mr Butler had raised concerns over how the March 23, 2019 incident was handled for years.
But his story has remained largely hidden from view, until now.
On the morning of March 23, 2019, Director of Security Peter Butler was in Wollongong after attending a concert. He was called at 7am that morning over a report that a young woman had been found naked in a ministerial suite.
By this stage, a female security officer Nikola Anderson had reported to her superiors that the woman appeared intoxicated when entering Parliament at 1:41am and did not have her pass. The incident report said the woman “stumbled” when going through the security checkpoint.
The man, according to the incident report and evidence at the trial, left around 30 minutes later “in a hurry”. When security staff noticed the woman had not left at the same time they conducted a welfare check and found the woman naked on the couch.
Mr Butler told the security staff to perform another welfare check. To protect the individual(s) he spoke to, who were not found to have behaved improperly, we will recall the woman Jane Doe.
“I advised Jane Doe of my concerns of the female being left in the minister’s suite and the fact that she appeared to have come into the building, either in an intoxicated or affected state,’’ Mr Butler told police.
“I still had concerns for her welfare.”
Mr Butler claims he advised the Department to engage with AFP officers. They were on site. But documents state he was later told it was “not a police matter.” Instead, they ordered the room to be cleaned.
“I’d been away for the night before at a concert in Wollongong and I was not able to attend Parliament House directly myself,’’ Mr Butler told police.
“I was continually receiving phone calls throughout the morning, seeking advice on what actions should be undertaken and what to do in relation to the matter. During one of those later phone calls, I had asked if the AFP had been engaged and had come yet, and I was told no, they haven’t.”
Mr Butler claims he raised concerns about the cleaning of the suite.
“And again, I did reiterate to Jane Doe that they should be engaging with the AFP to handle the matter. I then received a number of phone calls requesting how to have the minister’s suite cleaned. And I advised against cleaning the suite.
“I suggested that if something’s gone wrong, without knowing what the actual circumstances were, but something just wasn’t right. That they shouldn’t touch anything in the suite, and then leave up to the AFP to make those determinations.
At 8:33am Mr Butler formally reported the matter, which was escalated to various representatives of the Department of Parliamentary Services on Saturday, 23rd of March 2019. Brittany Higgins was still asleep in the office.
At approximately 9:15am another welfare check was conducted. The security officer spoke to Ms Higgins through a closed door and said she indicated “everything was okay.”
At approximately 10:02am, Ms Higgins exited the building.
Seven minutes later, at approximately 10:09am the deputy secretary and the Department of Parliamentary Services chief of staff arrived at the Parliament House to follow up on the welfare of the staffer on the advice of the secretary.
However, Brittany Higgins had already left the building seven minutes earlier.
The room was cleaned at around 4pm that day.
On Monday, March 25, Mr Butler returned to Canberra. He spoke to a parliamentary AFP Commander Hynes. He told him the AFP had no knowledge of what had happened on the weekend.
“I had certain conversations with my SES that morning about what transpired on the weekend, and that they told me it wasn’t a police matter,’’ Mr Butler said.
But around a week later, the police revealed they now had a rape complaint. Mr Butler was called to give a police statement. It was the first of several.
“Subsequently, Commander Hynes informed me that the AFP were looking at this, that there was a potential concern that the young lady in question believed that she may have been raped,’’ Mr Butler told police.
“Commander Hynes asked for me to access the CCTV cameras that would have identified the male and female persons entering and exiting parliament house. I was directed not to provide the CCTV not to give access nor provide CCTV footage to the AFP.
“When I conveyed that to Commander Hynes, he made comments to the effect that the AFP are entitled to have access to the reports that I gathered from officers involved in the night shift and the day shift in the early hours of that morning.”
Mr Butler told police that he believed the original contents of his executive report had been changed “mainly to the effect that when my officers indicated they found the young lady completely naked lying on the lounge, they just changed that to undressed which could have had potentially different connotations.”
A second parliamentary security service executive summary of events of the incident on Saturday 23rd of March 2019 was prepared.
News.com.au has also obtained this report.
It names both Brittany Higgins and Bruce Lehrmann. The second report changes the reference to a woman being found naked to suggest she was found “undressed.”
An investigation by Vivienne Thom later suggested she didn’t think much turned on the alleged change to the report, but that came months later.
An anonymous tip off to Kimberley Kitching
Just a few weeks after Commissioner Colvin wrote to Parliament in September 2019 complaining about what happened, the anonymous tip offs started.
First, someone emailed The Canberra Times in October 2019 and urged them to ask if a woman had been sexually assaulted in Defence Industry Minister Linda Reynolds’ office. They never wrote a story fearing it might distress an unknown alleged victim.
Then in March, 2020, another anonymous tip off. This time, to the late Labor Senator Kimberley Kitching.
News.com.au has obtained this correspondence.
The document appears to have been written by someone with some knowledge of the relevant night, although it contains some false and scurrilous rumours.
It claims, for example, the alleged incident occurred on the wrong date May, 2019 and that a senior Department of Parliamentary Services staffer encouraged Ms Higgins to shower and that the alleged rapist was a security guard, not a Liberal staffer.
“They are not proven facts and they’re alleged,’’ the letter said.
“There was an alleged rape in a ministerial suite in the early morning of a day in May 2019.
“The cleaning company came immediately and completely cleaned the site, removing any and all potential evidence.”
Senator Kitching responded to the letter swiftly. She immediately reported it to the police and subsequently to the Presiding officers – the Speaker Tony Smith and the President of the Senate Scott Ryan.
The letter was tightly held by Senator Kitching for years – claims that the document was widely distributed in the press gallery after the story broke in February, 2021 are false. It was however included in the police evidence brief provided to the DPP and Bruce Lehrmann’s lawyers during the trial.
The police investigation into the anonymous tip off found, as Commissioner Colvin outlined in his own letter, that the room was cleaned but no crime occurred because there was no allegation when it was cleaned.
At the conclusion of the police investigation, Parliament House engaged Vivienne Thom to investigate a potential code of conduct breach by a specific parliamentary staffer. We will call the staffer Jane Smith. This related to the false claims attended the site and encouraged Ms Higgins to shower. In fact, she did attend the site for a welfare check but by the time she arrived, Ms Higgins had left.
Ms Thom’s report was purely a code of conduct investigation into Jane Smith.
It was never an investigation into the allegation itself.
It was not even an investigation into the decision to clean the room, although she did find this was not unreasonable in the circumstances.
It found the allegations against Jane Smith were unfounded.
Vivienne Thom never spoke to Peter Butler
But there was another thing.
The investigator, Ms Thom, never spoke to Mr Butler during her investigation. She had no reason to do so because it was not in her terms of reference to interrogate whether the report was altered or whether he told other officials not to clean the room. As such, she was not told about the disagreement over the cleaning of the room and the report.
News.com.au has obtained a copy of the full 27-page Thom report.
Thom report finds “disagreement between cops, Parliament over decision to clean suite”
What Ms Thom found was that the police and the Department of Parliamentary Services were in disagreement over how the matter was handled.
“There is some disagreement between the Australian Federal Police and the Department of Parliamentary Services about whether the AFP should have been notified at the time of the incident,’’ the Thom report concludes.
“In any event, the notification would have been the primary responsibility of Parliamentary Security Staff, who are under the control of the AFP.
“It appears that the AFP was not notified immediately because it was not viewed as a significant security incident and there was no reason to suspect that an assault or another criminal offence had taken place.”
“The circumstances would not have led a reasonable person to suspect there might be any reason to preserve the state of the suite. The decision to clean the suite does not seem to be unreasonable or improper in these circumstances.
Peter Butler’s secret submission to Parliament in 2020
Mr Butler wasn’t finished raising concerns about what had occurred.
A secret parliamentary inquiry into security at Parliament House established by Senator Kitching had spent months canvassing concerns about the Department of Parliamentary Services.
It received a secret submission from Mr Butler in late 2020.
Until now, the contents of that submission have never been revealed.
It reveals that Senator Linda Reynolds’ office was expressly named in his submission as the site of the incident.
That is crucial because Vivienne Thom’s report does not name the ministerial office. That means that anyone who was briefed on it including Penny Wong did not know where the alleged rape occurred.
Mr Butler did. And he included this information in a secret submission that MPs could only read by entering a special room. There was no emailed copy of his submission.
Before her death, Senator Kitching said that she did not read the submission until after the story broke in February, 2021.
News.com.au spoke to Parliament’s former security director in February, 2021. He told news.com.au that he could not comment on any of the specifics outlined but he was happy to co-operate with any future inquiries.
It followed an anonymous tip off that claimed the room was “steam-cleaned”. In fact, it was cleaned but not via any steam cleaning. The cleaning of the room was not routine and it was the only room cleaned when the cleaner, Carlos was ordered to attend Parliament on his day off.
On February 17, 2021, news.com.au had reported that Mr Butler, the former director of security operations at Parliament House quit his job in the wake of the alleged rape of Brittany Higgins after raising concerns over how the matter was handled.
“In my previous role as the Director Security Operations for DPS at the time of this tragic incident, I provided assistance to police undertaking certain inquiries,” he said.
“As this is an ongoing matter I may be called upon to provide further assistance to the authorities so it would be inappropriate for me to comment further and potentially compromise any potential inquiries or investigation.
“Also as an ongoing Commonwealth Public Servant I am unable to make any comments on this matter to the media.”
Instead, Mr Butler gave his version of events to the AFP in a record of an interview conducted in April, 2021.
What the cleaner Carlos Ramos told the ACT Supreme Court
Cleaner Carlos Ramos was sworn into the witness box at 2:58pm during Bruce Lehrmann’s trial on October 11, 2022.
The cleaner told the court he worked Monday to Friday from midnight to 7am cleaning offices.
“You would normally not clean on a Saturday or a Sunday. Is that correct?,’’ the DPP Shane Drumgold asked him.
“No, no, not really,’’ he replied.
“Now, on Saturday, 23 March, you were contacted to do an out of hours clean?
Mr Ramos said he was at home with his wife who was pregnant. He was told to attend Parliament that afternoon for a two hour clean of the Defence Industry Minister Linda Reynolds’ office.
Ms Reynolds and her chief of staff Fiona Brown were told nothing and had no knowledge the room was being cleaned.
“Initially I understood that I had to do normal cleaning. I did all the cleaning. I was supposed to just do,’’ Mr Ramos said.
He told his boss, “‘Look, this is normal cleaning’, even though there has no been a party or something like.”
Mr Ramos was asked what cleaning he conducted on the couch.
“I think I use – I don’t remember the name of the chemical but is the chemical that we use for example to clean the leather. The normal, just put in the blue wipe, in the blue cloth and then normal like removing that like – yes.”
He called his boss to tell her it didn’t look like there had been a big mess.
“No, Carlo, there has been a party. You need to look for something like a party, like condoms or something like that,” she told him.