BuzzFeed News has spoken to a journalist who claims they received a tip-off from then justice minister Michael Keenan's office ahead of the Australian Federal Police raids on the Australian Workers' Union last year.
Speaking to BuzzFeed News on the condition of anonymity, the journalist said their TV newsroom received a phone call from Keenan's office on the afternoon of Tuesday, 24 October, 2017, an hour or so before the raids.
The caller identified themselves by name to the newsroom and specifically said they were phoning from Keenan's office to make sure there would be cameras outside the union offices.
"When he rang our newsroom he identified himself as [name redacted] from Michael Keenan's office," the journalist said.
Keenan's staff member passed on the location and time that the AFP search warrants were being conducted later that afternoon on the AWU's Sydney and Melbourne offices.
The staffer also pointed out that the union in question used to be run by Labor leader Bill Shorten.
The alleged tip-off is similar to calls made by the former senior media adviser of employment minister Michaelia Cash. The adviser resigned after BuzzFeed News revealed he informed at least two media organisations of the raids.
A spokesperson for Keenan told BuzzFeed News: "Neither the minister or anyone in his office informed media outlets prior to the execution of search warrants".
Keenan confirmed last year that he was advised by the AFP prior to the search warrants being executed at the two union offices.
"The AFP advised my office of the intention to execute search warrants immediately prior to them being executed, as is usual practice," Keenan said.
As justice minister he was in charge of the AFP, and under the AFP's national guidelines they are required to inform him when they're referred politically sensitive matters. The AWU raid was referred to the AFP by the Registered Organisations Committee.
"Again, in line with usual practice, my office briefed the prime minister's office as the search warrants were being executed," Keenan said.
The journalist speaking to BuzzFeed News claimed the information from Keenan's office was relayed to its other bureaus, which sent cameras and reporters directly to Sussex Street in Sydney and the Spencer Street office in Melbourne.
The journalist said they weren't sure if Keenan's office called other newsrooms and gave them the same tip.
Keenan is the member for Stirling in Perth. After the creation in December of the mega-department of Home Affairs headed up by Peter Dutton, Keenan was reshuffled out of justice into to the human services portfolio.
The 24 October raids were part of an investigation by the Turnbull government–established watchdog, the ROC, into donations made by the AWU over a decade ago when it was led by Shorten.
Camera crews, photographers, and journalists arrived at the AWU office around 4pm, before police.
The AWU said they were informed of the raids by the media, who arrived well in advance of police.
“It was only literally when our officials ran outside the front of the building they noticed a TV scrum formed out the front,” Daniel Walton, the national secretary of the AWU, told BuzzFeed News. “And a number of journos said to us we’re here because the AFP is about to execute a raid on you.
“That news started breaking on TV fairly quickly, then the ROC tried to ring me to tell me the AFP were coming down. I think they panicked when they saw it on TV.
“So despite this meaning to be a big secretively thing, we were told by the journalists before the police arrive."
TV reporters began crossing live into news bulletins from outside the union's Sydney and Melbourne office before police arrived, and continued for hours as the search warrants were executed.
AFP commissioner Andrew Colvin said this week he was concerned that the raids were broadcast live on TV. AFP officers also expressed their surprise to see the media when they arrived at the union offices.
The following day the AFP launched an investigation into who tipped off the media, worried that the leak could have put officers' lives in danger and compromised its investigation.
"We will always be concerned, despite what people sometimes think, about media exposure of police activity; it puts our officers lives in danger ... and we will always be concerned by that," Colvin told Senate Estimates.
Cash has continually refused to say whether any other government staff members leaked information to the media. On Wednesday in Senate Estimates, she refused to say whether she had had conversations with Keenan about the AWU raid, claiming public interest immunity.
It has been 125 days since Cash first claimed public interest immunity and refused to answer questions about the raids.
The AFP has conducted interviews with more than 10 staffers in ministerial offices, but not with ministers. The AFP has also spoken to people from the ROC and the Fair Work Commission. No charges have been laid.
The investigation is ongoing, but Colvin said he hasn't ruled out the possibility that more people, including a police officer, were involved.
The AWU has launched a Federal Court challenge claiming the ROC investigation was politically motivated and invalid, and that the subsequent raids on its offices were unlawful.
Alice Workman is a political reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in Canberra.
Contact Alice Workman at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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