“Rod, there are some people from the ICAC here to see you.”
There was no way of telling at the time, but those words heralded an unprecedented sex, extortion and corruption scandal that would see the city of Wollongong propelled into international headlines for all the wrong reasons. By the time the dust settled reputations were demolished, a Council was sacked and a community left in long-term damage control.
Anyone in or around Wollongong at the time would already be very familiar with this story. To quickly recap, explosive evidence at a 2008 Public Inquiry of the NSW Independent Commission Against Corruption involved – among other things - sex between a Wollongong City Council town planner and businessmen, gifts given in return for development approvals, extortion by conmen, and political corruption.
As a result of the public inquiry, the ICAC found ten people to be guilty of corrupt conduct, with recommendations for criminal charges to be laid against eight of them including four city Councillors. It remains the biggest scandal in Australian local government history and led to major changes in the rules around political donations.
In my book Named and Shamed: Rod Oxley’s Inside Story of the Wollongong Corruption Scandal, I relayed Council CEO Rod Oxley’s take on the ICAC investigation and findings, including the dramatic raid on the Council headquarters in 2006 that first propelled the case into the public domain. He gave his account of the extraordinary courtroom scenes during the ICAC public inquiry and the Commission’s tactics in gathering evidence. Having been “named and shamed” yet not recommended for prosecution, Oxley issued a chilling message for anyone in a senior role: this could happen to you.
A few years on from this infamous episode, there are still plenty of lessons for anyone in a senior position, regardless of whether that’s in a public organisation, a business or a not-for-profit. It also makes a compelling case study of an organisation in crisis, complete with full-blown media frenzy. How does such a predicament come about, and is there anything that can be done to avoid it?
Crises can and will strike any organisation. They may not be as headline-grabbing as the Wollongong corruption scandal, but they will have a significant and serious impact on your operations. Some fall into the category of what the text books describe as a “cobra crisis” – that is, an unpredicted, catastrophic event such as a natural disaster, major act of sabotage or something on that scale.
While the Wollongong case might appear to fall into that category given the way it erupted so unexpectedly in the courtroom, in fact it was much more like a “python crisis” – a series of issues that slowly gather momentum and ultimately suffocate an organisation.
Much has been written about cobra-like disasters and how to manage them when they hit. Far less discussed are the key actions a leader can put in place to help safeguard their organisation against a slow but steady escalation of issues. In coming blogs I'll be discussing my top ten lessons from a slow-burning yet catastrophic situation like Wollongong’s...Stay tuned!