Two members of a cell of allegedly corrupt Australian Border Force officers have been arrested as part of the wave of organised crime arrests that swept Sydney and Dubai this week and netted some of NSW’s alleged crime bosses.
Leaked confidential government documents and briefings from senior officials suggest the pair who were arrested – one a current officer, Craig Eakin, and one a former officer, Johayna Merhi – were just the latest of several alleged corrupt insiders in Border Force and Customs who have allegedly compromised Sydney Airport or Port Botany since as early as 2003.
The prime beneficiary has been the allegedly criminal Jomaa syndicate, two of whose members were arrested in Sydney earlier this week, and one in Dubai.
Police allege the Jomaa syndicate smuggles drugs and tobacco past Australia’s border. The syndicate has also shifted funds out of Australia to accounts in Panama, the UAE and Lebanon.
Much of the suspected corruption involving a small cell within Australia’s border protection agency has never been brought to public attention, nor resulted in criminal charges against several cell members, who have instead quietly resigned or been sacked.
However, much of the alleged corruption is detailed in confidential government and police reports that suggest multiple drug and tobacco importations may have occurred with inside help.
The charging of the pair and the failure to charge or publicly expose other suspected cell members and the facilitation of drug or tobacco importations, will thrust Australia’s anti-corruption regime into the spotlight.
Also under scrutiny is the federal government’s decision to prematurely abandon a Customs anti-corruption board led by former NSW chief commissioner Ken Moroney and which was formed when a cell of Sydney Airport Customs officers were arrested in 2012.
On Tuesday morning, serving Border Force officer Craig Eakin and former Border Force official Johayna Merhi were arrested as part of an organised crime investigation that targeted the Jomaa syndicate and suspected drug and tobacco trafficking.
A second investigation simultaneously targeted the Ibrahim, Ahmad and Dib families.
According to documents, the Jomaa family was at one time “considered bullet-proof amongst the criminal underworld, as it was alleged that they had assistance from Customs and Border Protection.”
A long-running Fairfax Media investigation has investigated the Jomaas’ alleged infiltration of Immigration and Border Protection Minister Peter Dutton’s Border Force agency, but was requested last year to hold off publishing details until this week.
The leaked documents include a “protected” briefing in 2010 from Customs (since renamed Border Force) to then federal police commissioner Tony Negus that warned the Jomaa family had infiltrated Customs.
The charms of Officer X
Police allege the first insider cultivated by the Jomaa family was a handsome, charming Customs officer popular among his female colleagues, Officer X (he can’t be named for legal reasons).
Officer X appears to have entered the Customs agency in the early 2000s with no screening.
NSW police reports reveal two of Officer X’s brothers are “extensively recorded as subject of crime stopper reports.
“These reports suggest that both brothers are extensively involved in the distribution of ATS [amphetamines], heroin, gang activity, illegal weapons and drug usage”.
Phone records uncovered by Fairfax Media reveal that, despite his position in the Customs service, Officer X had since 2003 used mobile phones registered in fake names, including that of casino mogul “James Packer” and motor sports legend “Wayne Gardiner.”
He had 11 fake name phones in all. When quizzed about the phone in the “James Packer” name, Officer X claimed that ASIO had provided him with the phone.
The phone numbers of the falsely subscribed SIM cards that Officer X used while he worked at Customs were regularly detected in the call logs or contact lists of drug traffickers and tobacco smugglers.
In 2005, a Sydney boxer suspected of importing drugs was found with Officer X’s number; in 2008, his false numbers were found on multiple occasions to have called phones belonging to the Jomaa family or its associates.
For instance, suspected tobacco smuggler Ali Jomaa was in contact with a phone Officer X had falsely subscribed in the name “John Ram.”
Suspicion falls on Awad
In late 2010, the head of Customs, Michael Carmody, was so concerned about the Jomaas’ infiltration of his agency that he wrote to AFP Commissioner Tony Negus.
The letter contained information provided by NSW Police that the Jomaa syndicate allegedly had “assistance from Customs and Border Protection working at the CEF [NSW Customs Examination Facility at Port Botany].”
The letter also warned that Officer X had been identified as likely corrupt through his “close relationship to the Jomaa family.”
“This officer… had come to notice previously for these relationships and having family members allegedly involved in narcotics trafficking and steroid trafficking.”
The letter noted that Officer X had been placed on leave “pending a more detailed investigation.”
“Soon after the suspension of Officer X, NSW POL [Police] Middle Eastern Organised Crime Squad [had information]… indicating that the Jomaa family had lost one of its informants within Customs and Border Protection. The information suggested there were two Customs and Border Protection officers and the younger one was caught.”
Other officers flagged
So who was the second officer? Or was there more than one?
In the 2010 letter, Negus was also warned that two female Customs officers had connections to the Jomaa family.
One of these officers was allegedly “passing on sensitive information directly to members of the Jomaa family, including information about a specific member of the family who has been charged and is on bail”.
“Numerous links between [the two female officers] and the Jomaa family have also been established.”
Both female officers were friends with the ex-wife of Ali Jomaa, an alleged trafficker based in Dubai.
When one of the officers had earlier sought and been granted a job at Customs, Jomaa’s ex-wife was her referee. This meant that the wife of a suspected smuggler was vouching for her friend to enter Customs.
Jomaa’s ex-wife’s connections to Customs officers were not limited to the two women under suspicion. She was also next door neighbours with a third female Customs officer whom she had travelled overseas with.
The Jomaa family
Led by the chubby, cocky Abbas, the Jomaa family ruled the suburb of Arncliffe, near Sydney airport.
Most of the Lebanese Shiite families knew them as a large family involved in sport, the mosque and the local community.
The tiny percentage of the Arncliffe community involved in organised crime, along with the NSW Police Middle East Organised Crime and Victoria Police organised crime detectives, viewed the Jomaa family – Abbas, Ali, Mohamad, Koder – through a different prism: as an alleged criminal syndicate.
Abbas and Koder appear to have had both investments and connections in South America and the United Arab Emirates, where Koder and Ali would eventually be based. In around 2013, Dubai became an alleged Jomaa operations hub, far from the reach of Australian law enforcement.
The family built strong connections with Hakan Arif, a notorious alleged crime figure who was close to the Comanchero bikie gang and the so-called Facebook gangster, fugitive drug trafficker Hakan Ayik.
Travel records reveal that Hakan Arif had travelled overseas with a member of the Jomaa family allegedly involved in cocaine trafficking.
The involvement of Hakan Arif in the Jomaa network was alarming for another reason. Hakan Arif’s cousin was one of the female Customs officers named in the report to Negus.
The report to Negus also identified a fourth officer “suspected of being involved in the supply of sensitive information to criminal syndicates.”
“The AFP indicated that [this officer] had asked questions and sought information from the AFP that in hindsight raises suspicions.”
By the end of 2010, five Customs officers with suspect links to the Jomaa family had been identified. The Jomaa syndicate was suspected to have deep links inside the agency.
Customs struggles with the problem
But there was no major investigation launched at the time as the AFP and corruption watchdog, the Australian Commission for Law Enforcement Integrity (ACLEI), were busy chasing an cell of other suspected corrupt Customs officers at Sydney airport as part of an unrelated operation codename Marca.
Marca led to the charging of several Customs officers at Sydney airport in 2012 and 2013, along with integrity reforms to the Customs agency (it was renamed the Australian Border Force in 2015).
Drug testing and mandatory reporting of corruption was introduced inside customs, yet the agency bosses still lacked the power available to state police commissioners to sack officers they suspected of corruption or to investigate their own.
The Jomaas’ insiders named in the 2010 Negus briefing were, over the next two years, subject to internal inquiries, either quitting or being slowly pushed out of Customs.
Privately, some senior officers inside Customs dismissed allegations, pushed largely by state police officers, that Customs still had a corruption problem. Officer X resigned mid-way through his investigation. Problem gone, said Customs. Or at least that is what some senior offers claimed.
Yet the allegations continued to emerge. Intelligence reports prepared by the NSW Police Polaris taskforce between 2012 and 2015 (when Customs was renamed Border Force) described the Jomaas as a continuing high-level risk to the border and warned the family had ongoing connections inside the border security agency.
The Jomaas’ insiders, such as Officer X, may have gone, but they stayed in touch with contacts inside Border Force. Police and customs’ investigations in 2014 singled out a female Customs officer called Johayna Merhi as having suspected links to the Jomaa network, along with Sydney underworld identity, Bashar Ibrahim.
Despite the promises of reforms and a corruption clean-out, the Jomaa family also maintained another connection inside Border Force: Officer Y.
The taxi drivers and the female Customs officer
When Officer Y (who can’t be named for legal reasons) knocked off work from Customs House at Sydney airport on a Friday, one of his first calls was usually to one of the Jomaa syndicate members.
Officer Y and Jomaa were close friends and had a money making scheme on the side: driving cabs in Sydney’s south owned by two NSW police officers.
So trusted was Jomaa that Officer Y allowed him to work out at the ABF gym. But the NSW police suspected Jomaa was getting more than access to a free work out.
Police intelligence identified several ABF computers at Customs House that were used to check suspicious container and plane cargo movements. The checks of the computers coincided with Officer Y’s shifts, but were made in other officers’ names. It suggested a major security flaw.
A suspicion emerged that Officer Y was using his access to the ABF computer system to check on cargo movements on behalf of the Jomaa family.
A small number of other suspected corrupt officers were suspected to be working with Officer Y at Customs House in Sydney. ACLEI was alerted in 2014, but no one was charged and the public was never told of the corruption risks identified.
The ability to see if a consignment has been marked suspicious or not by ABF is worth a lot of money to a crime syndicate. Crucially, it can mean knowing when to leave a container that is “hot” alone, thereby ensuring that if the ABF or the AFP are waiting, you are not arrested.
It wasn’t just Officer Y causing concern to policing agencies.
It was suspected by NSW investigators that a female Customs officer was also telling criminals, including the Jomaas, when things were getting “hot.”
$100 million of drugs
In 2014, police began investigating a $100 million drug shipment allegedly linked to Sydney crime figure Bashar Ibrahim. The container had arrived at Port Botany with drugs hidden in a food product
Police believed that Bashar Ibrahim and some other well-known Sydney criminals were involved in the shipment and had planned raids and arrests. Suddenly, the suspected criminals stopped speaking to each other and ceased all suspicious activity. A promising police investigation came to a grinding halt. Detective suspected a leak.
Intelligence collected by police narrowed down the alleged source of the leak to the female insider: an ethnically Lebanese ABF officer, Johayna Merhi – who was also connected to Officer X.
It was suspected that Merhi was carrying a phone subscribed in a false name, much like Officer X had a decade earlier. That phone was suspected to have been used to contact criminal identities and warn them that police suspected the container was filled with drugs.
As with Officer X, just as internal investigations loomed, Merhi and Officer Y decided to leave the agency.
The internal inquiries, reforms and arrests
Soon, other insiders were active. By late 2016, the federal police had identified a serving Border Force officer, Craig Eakin, who had a suspicious relationship with Merhi.
Eakin had been identified in an earlier anti-corruption sweep by Border Force, but he had retained his position at Customs House at Sydney Airport, as well as his access to sensitive government databases. Concerns soon grew that Eakin might also be dealing with the Jomaa family.
By early 2017, the federal corruption watchdog ACLEI joined the AFP in investigating both Eakin and Merhi, along with the pair’s connection to the Jomaas. Phones were tapped. Evidence was gathered that an alleged drug importation may be underway and that Eakin had allegedly been promised a large bribe from a Jomaa syndicate member to facilitate smuggling across the nation’s border.
This was the same allegation facing other Customs staff a decade earlier and which had prompted Customs in 2012 to commit to sweeping anti-corruption reforms, including supporting a Customs Reform Board introduced by the Gillard government.
But the board had been scrapped by the federal Coalition before its work had been finished. Last year, the board’s chief, former NSW chief commissioner Ken Moroney, told Fairfax Media that this decision risked “an escalation or increase in corrupt activity”.
Compounding the risk that corruption threats were not being tackled effectively were concerns raised privately by federal and state police forces that ACLEI had been starved of resources and expertise. At the same time, ACLEI was being swamped with Border Force corruption allegations referred to it by senior ABF officers as part of the agency clean up. Border Force itself lacked the power and ability to tackle serious corruption without outside help.
On Tuesday, the AFP and ACLEI swooped on Merhi, Eakin and several Jomaa family members. Eakin and Merhi are facing serious corruption charges in connection to helping the Jomaa syndicate smuggle drugs across the nation’s border.
Border Force has committed to introduce further integrity reforms, although unless the government gives the agency the power to dismiss suspect officers, it may struggle to deal with what one senior officer described on Tuesday as a “cancer” in its ranks that is tarnishing the majority of clean officers.
Meanwhile, the AFP is continuing to investigate allegations a small number of other Border Force staff may be corrupt. Despite the arrests this week, there is police intelligence suggesting the cancer is far from removed.
The story The inside story of corruption in Australian Border Force first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.