15 February 2024

'Got a minute?' Walter Sofronoff's text to Janet Albrechtsen involved 'familiarity', barrister claims

| Albert McKnight
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Janet Albrechtsen

The communications between Janet Albrechtsen and Walter Sofronoff have been scrutinised in the ACT Supreme Court. Photo: Janet Albrechtsen Twitter/X.

A text the Board of Inquiry’s (BOI) boss sent to a journalist was “hardly language” that would be used by a chair of a commission to a member of the media asking questions about his inquiry, the barrister for Shane Drumgold SC has claimed.

Walter Sofronoff KC texted The Australian’s Janet Albrechtsen, “Got a minute?”, as one of the 269 communications the pair exchanged from 22 February to 31 July 2023.

The “familiarity” in this text was of some significance, Mr Drumgold’s barrister Dan O’Gorman SC told the ACT Supreme Court during his submissions in reply on Thursday (15 February).

It was the final day of the hearings for his client’s legal fight against the BOI, as the former ACT Director of Public Prosecutions wants either Mr Sofronoff’s report, which was released after the inquiry into the prosecution of Bruce Lehrmann, or the decisions it made in respect to him to be declared invalid or unlawful.

His team spent most of the first day looking at the communications between Mr Sofronoff and Ms Albrechtsen, while during the second, the court heard the journalist had been the “most persistent” of those who contacted him and he hadn’t given her any “preferential treatment”.

His approach was to respond to any journalist who asked him a question, the court heard.

READ ALSO ACT Government discriminated against public servant due to her criminal history in ‘knee-jerk reaction’

On Thursday, Mr O’Gorman said the 269 communications mentioned above took place over 161 days. That resulted in an average of 1.6 communications every day from the time Ms Albrechtsen first reached out to Mr Sofronoff to the date that the latter’s report was handed to Chief Minister Andrew Barr.

Also, Mr O’Gorman claimed a fair-minded observer would think that the articles Ms Albrechtsen had been publishing at the time would have been written by someone “strongly adverse to Mr Drumgold” and a “supporter of various aspects of Mr Lehrmann”.

Ms Albrechtsen is “the person who chooses whose views she will reflect in her opinion pieces”, the barrister said.

walter sofronoff

Walter Sofronoff KC was the chair of the Board of Inquiry last year. Photo: Screenshot.

He also raised other communications between the pair, such as when Ms Albrechtsen asked, “Do we know when DPP first met Ms Higgins?”

“I’ll see if I can find out,” Mr Sofronoff replied.

Also, on 28 April 2023, the BOI emailed about the inquiry’s amended terms of reference to the journalists on its media distribution list. But 37 minutes earlier, Mr Sofronoff had sent the same information to Ms Albrechtsen.

Mr O’Gorman claimed this was “just another example about Mr Sofronoff treating Ms Albrechtsen very differently from anyone else”.

“There is no evidence in the communications that anyone else received it,” he said.

In a text from 3 May, Ms Albrechtsen asked if the inquiry hearings were still going to start the next week, 8 May. Mr O’Gorman said Mr Sofronoff replied yes, but had also added, “I’ll call later about statements”.

“He volunteers to assist further on a different topic,” the barrister claimed.

READ ALSO Knife-wielding robber demanded, ‘Where’s my money?’ during daylight attack

In another text, Ms Albrechtsen had asked if he knew how many more weeks of public hearings there would be. When Mr Sofronoff replied, he attached a list of witnesses for the week.

Also, after about 190 communications between them, she forwarded one of her articles to him.

Mr O’Gorman alleged there was no evidence Mr Sofronoff had initiated contact with any other journalist and the communications between him and Ms Albrechtsen suggested an “informality and a closeness”.

He also alleged it could be inferred that the former was aware of the views the journalist expressed in her opinion pieces.

man and woman in legal robes

Former Director of Public Prosecutions Shane Drumgold SC has taken his battle to the Supreme Court. Photo: Albert McKnight.

Acting Justice Stephen Kaye has reserved his decision and will hand it down at a future date.

He said it was a “substantial case to get through” and acknowledged the “enormous amount of work” done by the lawyers.

Mr Drumgold resigned as DPP after findings in the BOI report made his position untenable. The findings included that he directed “a junior lawyer in his office to make a misleading affidavit”, “preyed on the junior lawyer’s inexperience”, “egregiously abused his authority and betrayed the trust of his young staff member”, “deliberately advanced a false claim of legal professional privilege” and “knowingly lied to the chief justice”.

Mr Lehrmann pleaded not guilty and no findings have been made against him. His charge has been dropped.

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