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Illustration: Ron Tandberg
Illustration: Ron Tandberg
An undercover surveillance operation ordered by Commonwealth Bank has embroiled the institution in a spying scandal, with senior politicians monitored and photographed by private detectives investigating one of its critics.
The bank hired security firm G4S to conduct Operation Lantern, around-the-clock surveillance on consumer advocate and anti-banking lobbyist Michael Fraser between August 28 and September 1.
G4S, which conducted the controversial security operation for the London Olympics, claims it is ''a world leader in providing compliance and investigation-related services''.
Internationally, surveillance operations by governments and private firms are attracting increasing criticism and allegations of infringing privacy.
In a memo obtained by Fairfax Media, the Commonwealth requested photographs of people Mr Fraser met to ''allow for the identification of individuals'', and said it was attempting to confirm if he was receiving information from bank insiders.
At the time Mr Fraser was travelling from Brisbane to Sydney to attend a fund-raising dinner for Coalition senator John Williams, who is part of a Senate inquiry involving CBA with Labor senator Doug Cameron.
Other guests at the private fund-raiser included former NSW opposition leader Kerry Chikarovski, entertainer Kamahl and liquidator John Sheahan.
It was organised by lawyer Stewart Levitt, who is behind a class action against the bank. Also attending was Geoff Shannon, an aggrieved CBA customer who established the Unhappy Banking advocacy group and outspoken barrister Geoff Slater, who is acting for Mr Shannon.
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Senator Williams said when he found out about the spying, his initial thought was "What the hell is going on here? Why am I being monitored by some mob employed by the Commonwealth Bank."
Senator Williams said he contacted CBA earlier in the week and organised a teleconference with two senior bank executives for an explanation. "They confirmed the photos had been taken by the security company and gave assurances to me that they had ordered the photos to be destroyed. They apologised profusely," he said. "I accept their apology."
CBA confirms it carried out surveillance and said it was of ''a person who has conducted a systematic campaign of harassment, intimidation and threats to one of our employees over many months'' with numerous emails, text messages and phone calls to business and private numbers to a bank executive.
A spokesperson said the bank's concerns were such that it provided personal security to the employee and had contacted the police. An apprehended violence order has not been filed. ''In only the most worrying circumstances do we consider employing surveillance and these cases are very rare,'' the bank said.
The surveillance was organised on August 23, and on August 28 the target of the surveillance, Michael Fraser, tweeted and posted on his Facebook page that he was attending Senator Williams' dinner that night.
The bank denied it had known about the fund-raiser for Senator Williams. ''The only reason our surveillance came across the fund-raiser for Senator Williams was because the harasser attended it,'' it said.
The email from the bank instructed G4S to give updates throughout the four-day surveillance. It said: ''There is some suspicion Fraser is being fed information from another employee of the bank'' but ''we have not been able to confirm this''. It said he was ''harassing'' a bank executive and ''seems intent on destroying our employee's professional reputation and compromising his ability to work for the bank''.
CBA says hundreds of emails, text messages and phone calls were sent to the bank executive but Mr Fraser says over the past 10 months it was 68 calls, 30 emails and 23 text messages.
One of the guests, Mr Shannon from Unhappy Banking, who is co-ordinating a class action known as RG10, said when he found out he had been spied on he wrote to CBA's lawyers, Gadens, on October 17 questioning the bank's motives.
He said Gadens wrote back: ''I am instructed that the bank has not sought to obtain, nor has it obtained, nor engaged anyone else to obtain, any photographs or information in relation to your client as alleged in your letter.''
Mr Shannon said over the past two years his offices had been burgled twice and files taken. He did not know who had taken the files but he had filed two police reports.
Mr Fraser refers to himself as ''the Arbitrator''. He said in the past year he had represented dozens of aggrieved CBA clients. He told Fairfax Media his dealings with CBA began after a number of bank customers contacted him with allegations of low-doc loan fraud. He said he received standard responses to email correspondence with a bank executive, then silence.
He said over the past 10 months he had communicated extensively with the executive. He said his approach to those that would not do the right thing would always be ''peaceful, yet repetitive and psychological in an attempt to start a friendly dialogue or force them to reveal their lack of professionalism and lack of care for their affected customers''.
The text from Mr Fraser to the executive that triggered the bank's decision to email G4S on August 23 was ''I am coming to Sydney for 4 days from 28 Aug until 1 Sep. More of your close team wish to meet with me privately in relation to their concerns about you. These ones wish to remain anonymous.
''Two major papers are very interested in the story and taking notes. I just want you to know that I don't dislike you, I just want to see the right thing done in relation to a handful of large matters you are involved in. Would you be open to meeting off the record privately when I am in town. You are welcome to pick the venue and search me for recording devices. I will honour my word. Michael "