REX GARDNER Strife and times of gangland crusader
APART from being kinghit by a man near the Elizabeth Mall, Simon Overland’s five years in Hobart may turn out to be the most relaxed of his turbulent career.
The former Victorian Police Chief Commissioner, who quit that role amid controversy in 2011, found an ideal lifestyle in Salamanca and had relative obscurity as secretary of Tasmania’s Justice Department from 2012–2017.
Now working as the CEO of the City of Whittlesea on Melbourne’s northeast fringe, Overland is back in the spotlight with Victoria’s announcement of a royal commission into the Lawyer X scandal, where police recruited a criminal lawyer as an informant to dob in her high-profile clients.
In Tasmania, while he kept a low profile and shunned the media, few people would have been aware of the incredible experience, knowledge and secrets Overland carried.
He was regularly seen strolling confidently to and from work through Salamanca to his apartment, snappily dressed in tailored suits with pork pie hat adorning his closely cropped head.
You could see he was enjoying life in Tasmania.
His salary package as department secretary ranged between $370,000 and $443,000. He regularly worked out and was tall, fit and ripped.
For much of his time he commuted to and from Melbourne to spend weekends with his family. He was a regular at the Hobart airport, always travelling light, and always carrying an expensive hat. Coupled with his trademark sunnies, it probably gave the ex-police chief some cover.
Overland, now 57, was appointed by the Tasmanian Labor government in 2012, a year after resigning from Victoria Police on a payout estimated to be up to $2 million.
His Tasmanian sojourn was described as a “self-imposed exile” from Victoria.
After joining Victoria Police from the federal police, Overland headed up the Purana taskforce, which brought crime kingpins such as Carl Williams, Tony Mokbel and some of the state’s most notorious killers to justice.
He is credited with bringing Melbourne’s gangland wars to an end — and was held in high regard. The television series Underbelly followed.
Following his clean-up of the gangland underworld, his appointment to the highest office was assured. In October 2010, just weeks before the Victorian election, Chief Commissioner Overland released what were found to be misleading crime statistics, which painted a rosy picture for law and order under the Brumby Labor government.
He was considered too close to the government, and when the Liberals under Ted Baillieu swept into power, Overland was under pressure. After six months, he tossed in the job.
He was criticised in a postelection Ombudsman’s report for the misleading statistics.
His exit was ignominious. One newspaper said the onetime gangland crusader went from “hero to zero” in a very short time.
Many were surprised when he popped up a year later in Tasmania as a Labor appointment, saying the “Labor mates’ club” was at work.
His appointment was criticised by Will Hodgman’s Liberal Opposition at the time, but nevertheless, some years later, the Liberals in Government renewed Overland’s Justice Department contract.
Then, one Hobart summer evening in January 2013, Overland was in the news again.
Overland and his wife had been to a wine-tasting, and were near the intersection of Elizabeth and Liverpool streets heading to the mall, when he was hit from behind and sent crashing to the ground.
But the attacker, who was drunk, picked the wrong man.
Overland jumped to his feet and restrained his attacker, while his wife called police. The man was arrested and charged – and nine months later Roy Kinsellar, 30, was found not guilty on the grounds of insanity.
Overland resigned from the Justice Department in July 2017 to take on the Whittlesea CEO role.
The new challenge for Overland was sorting out a dysfunctional city council accused of having a culture of bullying and abuse.
This year, a public spat erupted between Overland and Whittlesea councillor Mary Lalios, who is also president of the Municipal Association of Victoria.
It was reported Cr Lalios made a bullying complaint against her CEO after he raised issues of potential “workplace bullying” regarding her questioning of a staff member. An independent investigator ruled in favour of Overland – and Cr Lalios has been on leave from the council since April.
The intrigue in the corridors of power in Whittlesea will now pale into insignificance against what is promised from the royal commission into the Lawyer X case.
The Lawyer X details have been suppressed for years under court orders. It went all the way to the High Court, and came to light last week, prompting the Victorian Government’s royal commission.
The High Court has called the police use of the Lawyer X informant as “atrocious” and “reprehensible” conduct.
Documents released by the Victorian Supreme Court last week quoted the high-profile gangland barrister informer as saying: ”There was no topic, criminal, organised crime group or underworld crime that was “off limits” during the many debriefing sessions that occurred during the years that followed (her recruitment) …..”
The Herald Sun reported that Lawyer X, in a 2014 interview, told them she had won a $2.9 million payout from Victoria Police, which included an agreement from Chief Commissioner Overland that she would never be forced to be a witness in any future prosecution.
There are certainly interesting times ahead before the royal commission hands down its interim report in mid-2019 on what has been described as one of the biggest legal scandals in Australia’s legal history.
FOCUS: Simon Overland outside his Richmond home.