When Nicola Gobbo’s voice finally connected on the royal commission hook-up, she was finally, officially, in a public witness box.
When Nicola Gobbo’s voice finally connected on the royal commission hook-up, she was finally, officially, in a public witness box.

Gobbo finally faces the music at royal commission

Nicola Gobbo has a blinding headache. She needs another painkiller. Will the headache prevent her from giving evidence to the royal commission into her unethical behaviour?

At 9.30am on Tuesday, everyone wonders why Gobbo is not on the commission hook-up by now, giving evidence down the phone. Five minutes tick by. Then another five.

Commissioner Margaret McMurdo announces "some delay", prompting talk about Gobbo's history of playing the sick card. Is she doing it again?

Waiting for Gobbo traces back to 2014, when the Herald Sun first revealed her informing career. She did appear in a secret trial, in 2017, and gave unsworn evidence to the royal commission three times last year. Oh, there was a TV interview, too, aired at a time her lawyers argued she was physically and mentally unfit to answer questions.

Barristers Con Heliotis QC and Nicola Gobbo.
Barristers Con Heliotis QC and Nicola Gobbo.

The wait for truth - or at least Gobbo's truth - stretches six years. When her throaty voice connects a tick after 10am, wags in the gallery speak of lost bets. Gobbo is finally, officially, in a public witness box, at least in practice if not in person.

"Nicola Maree Gobbo," she replies to the first question. So far so good - until counsel assisting Chris Winneke QC ponders her affidavit to support her admission to the law in 1997.

Gobbo omitted crucial facts in the sworn document to fashion a story in conflict with the facts of her 1993 guilty plea to drug use and possession, and her relationship with ex-boyfriend (and drug trafficker) Brian Wilson.

She didn't mention Wilson co-owned her Carlton property. Or that he returned to live with Gobbo two years after their house was raided.

Tony Mokbel with his lawyer, Nicola Gobbo, outside Melbourne Magistrates’ Court.
Tony Mokbel with his lawyer, Nicola Gobbo, outside Melbourne Magistrates’ Court.

On Tuesday, she agreed she misled the legal board of examiners, and that she might have been rejected - or faced heavier scrutiny - if she had set out her circumstances.

Point one is Gobbo's law career was built on lies. Point two is she was an informer before she was a lawyer. Her informing against Wilson in 1995 was just a start. From 1998, within a month of being accepted as a barrister, she was informing to police officers in breach of her legal ethical demands.

She is "embarrassed" by her "naivety" she says. She says she was threatened with crimes if she did not assist officers, and was too green to recognise the emptiness of the threats.

A pattern was set. Her first unofficial handler was Senior-Sergeant Wayne Strawhorn, from the drug squad. He passed on his chatty coffee companion to Senior Constable Jeff Pope, from the asset recovery squad, who to this day denies he slept with his secret source.

Next, Gobbo informed to then Inspector Peter De Santo, who investigated Strawhorn for drug trafficking. De Santo was "Svengali-like", a master manipulator like Strawhorn, Gobbo says. She didn't know how to decline their requests for information.

 

Tony Mokbel leaves Melbourne Magistrates’ Court with Nicola Gobbo.
Tony Mokbel leaves Melbourne Magistrates’ Court with Nicola Gobbo.

Yet Gobbo also tried to inform to the Australian Federal Police in these early days. And to an officer from the National Crime Authority. She slept with him, though her memory is patchy. "Is he balding with blond hair?" Gobbo asks, prompting involuntary smirks from some of the 23 lawyers at the commission's bar table.

The genesis of the greatest legal scandal in modern Australia lies in these connections. Gobbo was informing to three different arms of police at the same time as, at 26, she was being hailed in the Herald Sun as one of Victoria's youngest ever female barristers.

She also contemplated writing a university paper about the "illegality" that police informer relationships posed. Gobbo was fascinated by informers when she began informing. "It's very ironic that I'm telling you this in a royal commission," she says.

Gobbo's evidence is critical to understanding the labyrinth of complexities inspired by her unholy conspiracy with police. The thrust of her recollections will divert from official police lines in coming days. She will say she is a victim of police forces bigger than her.

Her parting sentiment on Tuesday will be shared by the detectives who used her intelligence.

"If Mr Winneke is going to keep going," Gobbo said, "can I take more painkillers please?"

KEY MOMENTS FROM NICOLA GOBBO'S TESTIMONY

1 She admits she omitted key details and misled the legal board of examiners about her criminal past to became a lawyer in 1997. "It wasn't the full story."

2 She testifies she could not say no to ''manipulative'' police officers who quizzed her about her clients. "Looking back, I'm embarrassed at my level of naivety and stupidity."

3 She warned her police handlers their relationship based on her informing would lead to a royal commission if they failed her and she wound up dead. "I would say, basically, 'If you people don't know what you're doing, then I'll end up dead and there will be a royal commission'."

4 She was obsessive about becoming an informer, approaching AFP officers with "confidential information'' and drinking with them at the Celtic Club at one of several meetings.

5 She could not remember a National Crime Authority officer with whom she had an affair, seeking to refresh her memory as to what he looked like. "I'm just trying to think of who that officer was from those diary notes … is he balding with blond hair?"

6 In 1998, Gobbo wanted to do academic research on the relationships between informers and the police. "It's laughable, in a horrendous way."

patrick.carlyon@news.com.au


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