When Michael Williamson resigned last summer as head of Australia’s Health Services Union, his legal problems were only beginning. Now they’ve been raised to a new level. This April 8, police in Sydney accused the former labor leader with diverting about $600,000 in union funds to personal use over a more than three-year period. The charges follow 20 embezzlement, fraud and obstruction charges lodged against him early last October. Williamson and several other persons were arrested. In all, the union during his tenure allegedly made at least $20 million in questionable, if not illegal payments to vendors without proper documentation. The case also serves as an example of why mixing union business and national politics, in any country, is an invitation to corruption.
Union Corruption Update first covered this story last September. Michael Williamson, 59, a resident of the Sydney area, weeks earlier had resigned from his post as national president of the Health Services Union (HSU), which represents more than 60,000 health care employees throughout Australia. Three months earlier an investigation by Fair Work Australia (the equivalent of our National Labor Relations Board) had uncovered evidence that former HSU National Secretary Craig Thomson, who had left the union for a political career in 2007, diverted more than $500,000 in union funds toward personal expenses, including nearly $270,000 for his parliamentary election campaign. The union also hired auditors, headed by barrister Ian Temby and accountant Dennis Robertson, to probe union finances. The audit concluded that the union was rife with cronyism. Parts of that report were leaked to the Sydney Morning Herald, triggering a public outcry for Williamson’s resignation as HSU president. Already under formal suspension since September 2011, and having stepped down as vice-president of the union’s New South Wales division in April 2012, Williamson resigned on August 1.
His departure could have been predicted. Evidence was substantial that Williamson used the union as a favor factory for companies operated by family members and friends. HSU National Secretary Kathy Jackson, who had replaced Craig Thomson, also had been accused by auditors of concealing more than $100,000 in union payments to companies that listed her and her former husband as directors. Formal charges seemed just around the corner. And they were. On the morning of October 4, Williamson turned himself in to a local NSW police station and was charged with 20 offenses related to theft, receipt of bribes, and obstruction of an investigation. Some 15 of the charges stem from Williamson making false statements with the intent to mislead union members. Later that morning, police executed a search warrant of his home and seized computer equipment as potential evidence.
Some two weeks ago, prosecutors filed new charges against the former union boss, raising the grand total to nearly 50. According to court documents, Williamson, during the period December 2006-February 2010, “facilitated the fraudulent preparation, submission and payment of Access Focus Pty Ltd. invoices with intent to defraud that body corporate.” He also allegedly received $600,000 “in circumstances where he knew that the $600,000 were proceeds of crime.” Williamson did not appear in court to respond to the charges and has yet to enter a plea. Along with Thomson, he has indicated he will defend himself.
As National Legal and Policy Center argued last September, the HSU plays a major role in the Australian Labor Party. Michael Williamson served as party president during 2009-10 in addition to his regular role as senior vice president of the party’s New South Wales branch. His daughter, Alexandra, is a former media adviser to current Prime Minister Julia Gillard. And Craig Thomson, as noted before, used the union as a springboard for his own Labor Party career. Political ambition and connections very likely contributed toward a sense of invincibility at the HSU. Gillard, who indefinitely sidelined Thomson last year, lately has been demanding stronger sanctions against union corruption and better public transparency. That’s commendable, but it would have been nicer if had she spoken like this a few years earlier.