Sarah Rees had no idea she was being followed.
- VicForests hired a private investigator to spy on environmental protesters, court documents show
- The PI also alleges he was told to follow and find “dirt” on one particular campaigner
- Legal experts say the allegations of “spying on citizens” are worrying
On a morning like any other in 2011, she walked out of her home in Healesville, about an hour’s drive from Melbourne, and started her car.
She drove to an office where she ran a small conservation group, did a bit of paperwork and then drove to Melbourne for the day.
Alan Davey says he was never far behind her.
For about four days, the professional private investigator says he followed her every move, at the request of a state government agency.
“They told me they wanted me to get as much dirt as I possibly could on the woman,” Mr Davey says.
“I was of the understanding Sarah Rees was a person of great interest that VicForests was trying to shut up.”
VicForests is a Victorian government agency tasked with supplying timber from state forests to sawmills and pulp mills around the state. It’s run as a for-profit company, owned by the government.
However, the ABC can reveal VicForests hired a private investigator to conduct surveillance on conservationists and, more recently, conducted what some have called “digital surveillance” on people the agency argues are trying to “discredit” it.
It’s not just conservationists who have been the target of this work. An academic says he has also been the subject of digital surveillance by VicForests.
“Government agencies allegedly spying on their citizens — there is a real question there whether that’s lawful, whether it complies with our privacy laws, and whether it’s consistent with our rights under the Charter of Human Rights that we have in Victoria,” says Yusur Al-Azzawi, a senior lawyer at the Human Rights Law Centre.
Alan Davey has done all sorts of things as a private investigator. He’s tracked down stolen cattle in the outback, served court documents on unwilling defendants, and uncovered cheating spouses. Much of it paid well, he said.
In 2010, he was hired by VicForests to tail logging trucks and spot any contractors who were driving dangerously.
He spent days and nights on roads through the Central Highlands of Victoria, filming trucks hauling logs out of the forests, recording their speeds and registration details.
“There were some rogue operators, for want of a better word, that were speeding. And their speeds were dangerous,” he said.
Hours of video footage seen by the ABC shows Mr Davey doing that work.
In 2010, workers caught wind of what was happening, and objected to VicForests hiring private investigators to spy on contractors.
However, Mr Davey’s work with VicForests didn’t end there.
In 2011, Mr Davey claims he was told to focus on a new target: Sarah Rees.
“I’d never met this woman before, but I was deployed to do three to four days’ surveillance on her,” Mr Davey said.
By 2011, Sarah Rees had been involved in forest conservation for about a decade, after she watched the water supply at Marysville degrade, something she says was caused by logging.
But that year, a campaign kicked off over logging at Toolangi State Forest — just 30 kilometres out of Melbourne — which, she says, raised the stakes.
After the 2009 Black Saturday fires burned 450,000 hectares of forest and killed 120 people in nearby Kinglake alone, VicForests saw a lot of their resources — state forests — disappear.
“Toolangi was considered the green hole in the black doughnut,” Ms Rees said. “It was burnt all around and, due to freak weather, due to the fact it’s a rich, wet old growth forest, it didn’t burn.”
She says that meant both environmentalists and VicForests valued the area — but for very different reasons — and a campaign involving protest activity kicked off.
VicForests has regularly come into conflict with protesters. But Ms Rees says the situation in Toolangi, near Kinglake, was a problem for them.
She says the protests lasted longer than usual — about six weeks. And, she says, the support this protest had from the local community, as well as its close proximity to Melbourne, made it a worry for VicForests.
It was in the midst of that campaign that Alan Davey says he was hired to follow Sarah Rees.
Alan Davey says he met with a senior manager at VicForests, who explained what they wanted: “dirt”.
“[They said] ‘I want as much content as you can possibly get. I want to know any s**t that she’s doing’ … and that’s what I did,” Mr Davey says.
Mr Davey says he followed Ms Rees for four days.
He took videos and photographs.
Mr Davey says he didn’t find anything of significance for VicForests.
“Four days of absolutely nothing,” he says. “Just living a very normal life.”
Ms Rees says VicForests saw her as a threat because she was using the legal system to challenge their right to log areas that were crucial to their business.
“I was effective,” she says. “I was using the system that had been designed to hold them to account and … they were seeking to damage my standing.”
However, she’s troubled by the surveillance.
“The truth of it is it was bloody awful to learn of that,” she says. “I was shocked. I felt violated.”
She says she ceased the lease on the office she was using, removed her mailbox and began using a post office box.
“I started acting in ways that I normally wouldn’t. A degree of paranoia crept in.”
An operation goes wrong
Mr Davey’s engagement by VicForests to surveil protesters is confirmed in court documents, including sworn testimony by then-senior managers at the agency.
Invoices show he was paid tens of thousands of dollars for his work.
The court documents also show it all came to an end later in 2011, after a different spying operation went wrong.
In August, a VicForests manager met with Mr Davey, and asked him to conduct covert surveillance on protesters, including taking photographs.
Sworn testimony by VicForests staff shows that evening, a VicForests general manager of operations drove Mr Davey to the forest near Toolangi to conduct his surveillance.
An invoice seen by the ABC shows he was paid more than $8,000 by the government agency for the mission.
The operation didn’t go well. Mr Davey says he was detained by several people and badly assaulted in the forest that night.
He says he has no idea if the alleged assailants were protesters, loggers or perhaps even an organised crime syndicate that may have been using the forest to grow drug crops, something that was known to occur in the region.
Mr Davey sued VicForests for damages and, as a result, details of his employment are available in court documents. The case was settled out of court.
VicForests didn’t respond to any questions about the issue, but in a statement said: “VicForests is always professional in its dealings with both contractors, and those who don’t support Victoria’s important timber industry. VicForests found no evidence to substantiate claims by Ms Rees.”
However, while Mr Davey walked away, VicForests’ pursuit of Ms Rees and others was not over.
Sarah Rees says VicForests has continued to surveil her.
In 2019 and 2020, Ms Rees was deputy chair of the Australian arm of the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC).
It’s an international not-for-profit that assesses products made from wood for sustainability, and gives them a tick of approval.
Having that tick of approval is important for companies such as VicForests, since some customers won’t purchase their wood without it.
Bunnings, for example, has stopped selling wood from Victoria’s state forests for that very reason.
VicForests has tried several times to get FSC certification, but has repeatedly failed.
“I think VicForests is suffering challenges on many levels with the attainment of the standard,” Ms Rees says.
In 2020, stories began appearing in rural and industry media about some board directors of FSC, including Ms Rees, being “biased”.
The alleged bias of Ms Rees and other board directors was so bad, according to the reports, that VicForests postponed its attempt to get FSC certification.
Several of those stories reported a complaint VicForests lodged with FSC, calling for Ms Rees to be sacked.
The ABC has obtained that letter, and an associated attachment, which Ms Rees describes as a “dossier” on her.
It contains a list of hundreds of tweets, which VicForests alleged demonstrated her promotion of illegal protest activity and “actively seeking to discredit VicForests, a government agency, and the Victorian government regulatory system”.
“It’s a repeat of 2011,” Ms Rees says.
“This idea of surveillance on citizens because they don’t like what we’re talking about, because they don’t like us expressing a view.”
The complaint called for Ms Rees and another environmentalist, Peter Cooper, to be sacked.
They weren’t sacked, however Ms Rees says she was set to become chair of the organisation but withdrew her nomination because of all the controversy.
In a statement, a spokesperson for FSC Australia said Ms Rees “is a current and valued director”.
And it turns out conservationists weren’t the only targets.
The complaint also compiled the tweets and other public appearances of Chris Taylor, a forest scientist from the Australian National University.
Dr Taylor’s research has alleged VicForests has been engaged in widespread and systemic illegal logging, a claim denied by VicForests.
“They more or less compiled a dossier of tweets that I made, articles that I’ve published, research papers that I’ve published and co-authored, and misrepresented them,” Dr Taylor says.
“It was quite off-putting that they would actually dedicate this time to surveil me in that regard.
“I think VicForests sought to … remove my credibility, thereby my voice.”
FSC commissioned an investigation into the complaint. The ABC has obtained a copy of the investigation report.
It doesn’t conclude that FSC board directors did anything wrong. However it notes that the investigators were “taken aback by the reaction and escalation” to those actions.
“The allegations [of bias] were investigated by FSC Australia and they were rejected,” Dr Taylor says.
Concerns about ‘state surveillance’
Legal experts say both physical and digital surveillance is worrying, especially when done by a government-owned agency.
“State surveillance comes at a very high democratic cost,” Ms Al-Azzawi says.
“Surveillance violates people’s rights to privacy, and it has a really chilling effect on the exercise of political rights.
“I think that this kind of surveillance, the fact that it is happening in an unregulated environment, means that we’re all at risk.”
Although the revelations heavily impacted Sarah Rees, she says it hasn’t dissuaded her from her activism.
“I don’t think it’s appropriate for a government agency to … behave like this. The government has an obligation and a duty to take care of its citizens, not to surveil its citizens, not to intimidate its citizens,” Ms Rees says.
“I won’t capitulate to the fear and intimidation and the tactics they’re using to silence us.”
Watch 7.30 tonight for more on this story.
Posted , updated