By Graham Ashton, Former Chief Commissioner, Victoria Police
Victoria, Australia, prides itself as the sports capital of Australia. Each year it hosts and promotes world leading sporting events such as The Australian Open Tennis, Australian Rules Football finals attracting 100,000 people, the Formula 1 Grand Prix and the time honoured Melbourne Cup, a two-mile horse race prized the world over. Melbourne has a reputation for delivering high quality events, and of course strong sports integrity systems are integral to that.
As an Assistant Commissioner of Police in Victoria a decade ago, I headed up the provision of investigative policing services to the community. Victoria Police is an organisation steeped in tradition, being in existence for almost 160 years. Taking on the head of investigations role gave me an opportunity to strengthen and modernise our services. I set about re-introducing some of our former crime investigation squads that had previously been discontinued such as the Homicide Cold Case Unit and took the opportunity to examine what new and emerging areas of crime existed that we were not yet ready to tackle.
It was with this intention I travelled to Paris to attend my first conference in Sports Integrity. I was keen to learn more about this issue and the threats and risks my home state on the other side of the globe might be going to experience in the future. To say I found this conference eye-opening would bean understatement. Clearly there were criminal threats to the integrity of sports that were not emerging but impacting then and there, and I quickly realised it was only distance that had prevented these reaching Australia.
The first significant risk I saw was in the impact of Unregulated betting on racing and sports. The global nature of communications had meant that now hundreds of millions of dollars were being channelled through Unregulated online bookmakers, safe from the eyes of law enforcement or other regulators.This was an invitation to corrupt operators to fix sporting events and obtain gaming revenue as their pay off. It was not possible to see their transactions and unmask them. Further, the sheer sums involved, made it attractive and a lower risk to corrupt less popular sports that were not sufficiently resourced to protect themselves. I was later to find this very thing was happening in Australia.
Secondly, I was alarmed at the money laundering potential through unregulated online gambling. Through my investigative career I had been involved in target-hardening various sectors from the threat of money laundering, and I assessed sports betting as the highest-risk area I had encountered.Traditionally the amount of money criminals lose in the laundering process is significant, whereas in online gambling almost all laundered proceeds could be retained by the criminal. I had not seen examples of this actually occurring yet, but given the scale of organised crime figures involved in corrupting sports I concluded it would only be a matter of time before they not only started laundering funds through online betting but actually created Unregulated betting entities themselves.
Upon returning to Australia I was able to brief a meeting of the Australasian Police Commissioners on the threats I had seen overseas and warned it was a matter of time before they emerged in Australia. To my disappointment the nation’s most senior police did not show much enthusiasm. Facing the daily challenges of domestic and family violence and rising street crime, one police chief said bluntly, “Why would we be interested in this?” Fortunately, my police chief in Victoria did not take this view and gave me full rein to try to ensure that Victoria’s excellent sporting event reputation, worth billions of dollars to the state economy, was as well protected as possible.I set about establishing the world’s first Sporting Integrity Intelligence Unit (SIIU) within Victoria Police. With no blueprint to follow, my senior police managers put in place a specialist squad that included intelligence analysts,experts on sports betting, and trained detectives. Their mission was to provide the best intelligence to sports in Victoria to assist them in protecting their sports and to work with sports, and for the first time to work collaboratively with sports to actively search out and rout sports corruption.
It was not long before we encountered a significant case of betting-related corruption in second-tier soccer in Melbourne. Matches were being fixed by gamblers offshore who were betting on known results with Unregulated betting operators. It was bizarre to see how much money was being wagered from the other side of the world on a soccer match being played before 100 people in the Melbourne suburbs. Victoria Police prosecuted this case and it made headlines around the sporting world. It was clear that distance was no longer protecting Australia and that we were not immune from sports corruption. The fact that Victoria Police was able to pro-actively tackle this crime, which was enabled by Unregulated online betting meant that Victoria’s reputation on the sporting integrity landscape was greatly enhanced.
Building on this success, the Unit has since been able to deal with sports corruption cases in a number of sports, including tennis, horse racing and harness racing. The ability to share risk intelligence to sporting bodies is critical to the success of the SIIU. To help achieve this the Unit hosts a key conference on the sports integrity calendar which brings experts from overseas to share intelligence and trends with sporting bodies. This includes the critical area of Unregulated betting. This sharing of intelligence is of particular importance to smaller and emerging sports who do not have the resources to protect themselves to the level of the more established sports who can invest in integrity systems due to their scale. What we learned from the soccer case was that the smaller sports are just as vulnerable as the major sports.
The establishment of the SIIU has led to a number of experienced detectives developing specialist skills in the sports integrity sector. In turn these detectives have moved out of policing and taken their skills to the sporting bodies. In Victoria this has included racing, harness racing, cricket and Australian Rules Football. This is a very positive development for sports integrity as it brings strong investigative and risk management skills into the sports themselves and strengthens the links between sports and law enforcement.
The skills developed within the SIIU were impressive and has accordingly seen numerous staff leave the unit to join sporting organisations. I have seen this as a positive as it shares expertise around the sector. This in turn has created an enhanced stakeholder network for Victoria Police. This development of expertise has also placed Victoria Police in a strong position to tackle money laundering cases into the future.