By Catrin Owen, Stuff
A former police officer who admitted illegally accessing the police database to leak information to an organised criminal group has been sentenced to 2 years and 2 months in jail.
Vili Mahe Taukolo, 31, previously admitted accessing the police’s National Intelligence Application (NIA) for a dishonest purpose between February 2018 and March.
On Friday, he was sentenced to 2 years and 2 months in jail by Judge Phillippa Cunningham at the Auckland District Court.
She ordered he must be kept in segregation until he is assessed as being safe in the general prison population.
Marie Dyhrberg QC acting on behalf of Taukolo sought permanent name suppression, which was opposed by David Johnstone acting on behalf of the Police and also opposed by Robert Stewart acting on behalf of Stuff and NZME.
The police NIA system stores the personal information and criminal histories of about 40 per cent of New Zealanders.
Taukolo began working for the police in 2015 as an authorised officer before becoming a sworn officer in 2016, Judge Cunningham said.
At the time of the offending he was a constable working in Auckland Central.
“You found yourself in the company of organised criminals who kept asking for further information, what might have been a one-off assistance to an old friend, turned into an endless cycle,” Judge Cunningham said.
Johnstone said Taukolo broke his police oath by illegally accessing the database for the purposes of assisting organised crime groups and then made a personal profit of tens of thousands of dollars in cash.
He said the offending spanned a full year. Taukolo went into the NIA application and moved beyond the first page where it warned about potential criminal ramifications about misusing the information.
Johnstone said the corruption was driven out of personal gain.
Taukolo searched the database more than 20,000 times over a 16 month period. 25 per cent of those were made on a day off, which in itself is not allowed by the police.
While Taukolo was on leave or unwell, he made about 1200 searches. Some of the searches included finding details on 34 of his colleagues, himself and his family members.
The court heard he made a profit of $70,000 and when police conducted a search of his home found $30,000 cash in his bedroom.
In October 2018, he searched for details on a high profile police investigation which involved a methamphetamine importation case in Christchurch.
Irregularities in Taukolo’s searches prompted police to audit the NIA searchers which prompted the investigation.
Johnstone said the former cop would look at addresses before then looking up interested persons.
Dyhrberg QC accepted there had been a serious breach of trust and Taukolo accepted he’d brought the police into disrepute.
“He did have a great fall from grace…but the defendant here did not become a criminal,” she said.
“By using his own name it was going to come out. He just kept looking over his shoulder and when it suddenly came to an end, he knew where he was heading…but he was able to get rid of awful anxiety and breaching of who he really was,” Dyhrberg QC said.
Police previously confirmed civil restraining orders had also been issued against the police officer, in accordance with the Criminal Proceeds (Recovery) Act 2009.
The Act allows for the forfeiture of assets derived directly or indirectly from significant criminal activity, or which represent the value of a person’s unlawfully derived income.
Taukolo was also convicted on Monday for wilfully damaging the Femme Fatale brothel in September and fined $250.
Police said he was “too intoxicated to make a statement” at the time after he broke a glass panel in a door and a window of the brothel, which had shut.
“He was told by staff he couldn’t come in and pushed passed them to gain entry,” Judge Cunningham said.
Auckland City District Commander Superintendent Karyn Malthus, said Taukolo’s actions were “disgraceful” and Police staff “rightly feel betrayed by him”.
“To say that I am disappointed in his actions is an understatement,” Malthus said.
“He has broken not only the high level of trust we place on our own employees, but also the trust that is rightly expected of Police by the public,” Malthus said.
Malthus said the investigation was exhaustive and spanned months.
“Not only did his actions amount to a breach of privacy for these individuals, which included some of his own colleagues in New Zealand Police, he committed a serious criminal offence each time,” she said.
Every one of Taukolo’s NIA transactions over the period of his offending were analysed individually to assess whether it was a legitimate or illegitimate query,” Malthus said.
“No safety concerns were evident for the vast majority of individuals searched following an analysis of these transactions. If Police have serious concerns for a person’s safety, we will contact those affected.”
Malthus wanted to reassure the community that Police took immediate investigative action when this offending was first discovered, and self-reported the matter to the Independent Police Conduct Authority.
As a result of the incident, a comprehensive internal review has been conducted to examine the police’s processes and establish if there are any changes it can implement to prevent this type of offending from taking place in the future, and this work remains ongoing, Malthus said.
PREVIOUS NIA BREACHES
In May 2013, former police prosecutor Timothy John Russell Sarah was jailed for four years after pleading guilty to three charges of supplying methamphetamine, one of possessing the drug and a representative charge of dishonestly accessing the police computer – the National Intelligence Application.
Sarah had accessed the police computer system more than 80 times, gleaning information from the database, which he then passed on to drug-dealing contacts.
The crimes took place between 2010 and mid-2011 and were uncovered as a resulted of Operation Ark – a wider police investigation resulting in multiple arrests.
Data obtained by Stuff showed 89 officers misused the NIA database in the past four years.
Nearly two million people, just over 40 per cent of the population, appear in the NIA with an alert against their name.
The alerts range from flags for firearms licence holders, to warnings the person is a known paedophile.
Police can access the database from their mobile phone or via a computer.
Superintendent Barry Taylor, the national police professional conduct manager, said random NIA audits were conducted each month on around 90 users.
“The user and their supervisor review the transactions with the user explaining or justifying their actions where necessary.”
Since 2015, 184 police staff have been investigated for possible misuse of the database.
Eighty-nine of the allegations were upheld.
As of October, 33 investigations had been launched into alleged police misuse of the NIA in 2019.
Of those, seven had been upheld while 22 were ongoing.