The Guardian 2024-04-03 16:01:22


Bruce Lehrmann defamation case: How little-known television producer Taylor Auerbach became the star witness

Former Spotlight producer, 32, burst into the high-profile case last month before its final act, delaying the verdict and potentially changing the outcome

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TV producer Taylor Auerbach, described in the federal court as “dancing in the sunlight for two weeks”, will be the star witness on Thursday when Channel Ten re-opens its defence of the defamation action brought by Bruce Lehrmann.

The former Spotlight program producer, 32, burst into the high-profile case last month just before its final act, delaying the verdict and potentially changing the outcome.

Justice Michael Lee was to rule on whether the former Liberal staffer was defamed by Lisa Wilkinson and Ten when The Project broadcast an interview with Brittany Higgins in 2021 in which she alleged she had been raped in parliament house.

Auerbach will give his evidence on the very day Justice Michael Lee was scheduled to deliver the verdict in Lehrmann v Ten & Ors: 4 April.

On Tuesday Lee ordered that Channel Ten be granted leave to reopen its evidentiary case and that Channel Seven, which aired two exclusive interviews with Lehrmann in 2023, be in court on Thursday morning.

Seven has also been ordered to return two subpoenas it received in June and August relating to any documents they may have obtained from Lehrmann for the Spotlight program.

In its original response to the subpoena from Ten to produce documents in June 2023, Seven said “there are no written communications or records of communications to produce pursuant to the subpoeana”.

According to multiple documents on the federal court file, Ten has alleged that Seven received material from Lehrmann and Seven has always denied it.

So why has the case been reopened?

Counsel for the respondent, Network Ten, raised questions in an emergency late night hearing on Tuesday about whether parts of Lehrmann’s evidence in the federal court defamation case may have been false, arguing that “fresh evidence” needed testing.

The main two matters relate to how much Seven spent on wooing Lehrmann and what confidential material from his criminal trial, if any, Lehrmann handed over to Seven.

The allegations by Auerbach that have grabbed headlines relate to a claim that Seven paid thousands of dollars for massages, drugs, sex workers, accommodation and meals for Lehrmann while they tried to get him over the line for an exclusive interview. The allegations are yet to be tested by the court.

While not illegal, Seven has always insisted Lehrmann was not paid, it only helped with accommodation during filming and Lehrmann only declared the $104,000 in rental accommodation he was paid.

Ten alleges that Lehrmann and Seven have not been honest about the financial benefits received by the interviewee.

The possible supply of any documents to Seven is relevant to the defamation case because Seven, Lehrmann and Lehrmann’s counsel have all denied anything passed between them.

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If proven, the evidence could go both to Lehrmann’s credibility and raise questions as to whether he abused the court process, which may affect the quantum of any damages he is awarded should his claim be successful.

Dr Matt Collins KC, for Ten, raised questions before Lee about whether Lehrmann may have given false instructions to his solicitors and whether he may have committed “a very serious contempt by providing material subject to an implied undertaking to Seven”.

Ten alleges in its submission that Lehrmann has “in the conduct of this proceeding, engaged in an extreme abuse of process”, given evidence that was “wilfully false” and “committed a disgraceful contempt that warrants a referral for prosecution”.

What do Ten argue may be false evidence? In the interview on the Spotlight program, materials which were subpoenaed in the criminal trial such as Parliament House security video and audio from a meeting between Higgins, Wilkinson and The Project’s producer, Angus Llewellyn, were aired.

Lehrmann, both in the witness box and through his counsel, has maintained he gave Seven nothing but an interview.

During the five-week trial last year he was asked by Sue Chrysanthou SC, for Wilkinson, whether he gave, in addition to interviews, “all information, documents, film, video, photographs, items and assistance” to Seven.

Lehrmann responded: “No, I just gave an interview.”

Auerbach, who was involved in efforts to sign up Lehrmann with Seven for an exclusive interview, has sworn an affidavit alleging that Lehrmann did supply Spotlight with material, including thousands of pages of “deeply personal” text messages between Brittany Higgins and her then boyfriend, Ben Dillaway.

The texts were made available by the Australian Federal Police to Lehrmann for his defence during the ACT supreme court criminal trial.

In the criminal trial in 2022, Lehrmann pleaded not guilty to one charge of sexual intercourse without consent, denying that any sexual activity had occurred.

In December of that year prosecutors dropped charges against him for the alleged rape of Higgins, saying a retrial would pose an “unacceptable risk” to her health.

Auerbach alleges in an affidavit he had observed a “large lever arch hardback folder” Lehrmann brought to Seven containing what he saw to be “about 500 pages of documents”.

“I viewed some of the documents that were being copied and could see that they were exhibits from the applicant’s criminal proceedings,” he claims. “I saw by way of example Ms Higgins’ text messages.”

He also alleges he was told by Seven executives and legal counsel to delete “any materials that could be damaging to Seven”.

Auerbach: “I followed this direction and permanently deleted anything that I could find on my computer and phone at the time”.

So why does it matter if Lehrmann did give Spotlight any material?

It matters because, if true, it may be a breach of the implied Harman undertaking, which is a way the court ensures that sensitive information disclosed during legal proceedings is not used inappropriately outside those proceedings.

According to documents in Ten’s affidavit, Ten made “exhaustive inquiries in an attempt to identify the source of the material provided to Seven in apparent breach of the implied undertaking protecting materials produced, but not tendered, in the ACT criminal proceedings”.

“Those inquiries were hamstrung by the responses it received from the applicant’s solicitors and the solicitors for Seven, and the representations and submissions made on instructions on behalf of the applicant set out above.”

The allegations made by Auerbach and Ten will be tested in court on Thursday, including the claim that Lehrmann may have breached Harman undertakings in connection with the provision of material to Seven.

Auerbach will give evidence at 2.15pm after flying in from New Zealand on Tuesday night.

He is likely to be cross-examined about the alleged use of a Seven credit card to book the former Liberal staffer a $1,000 Thai masseuse, as well as eight separate charges for Sensai Thai Massage on 26 November 2022, totalling $10,315.

Seven will also be called to answer questions about its use of the material on the Spotlight program.

A Seven spokesperson said the claims were untested.

“We strongly reject the false and misleading claims relating to the broadcast of material in the Spotlight program. Seven has never revealed its source or sources and has no intention of doing so. Seven notes Mr Lehrmann’s court testimony last year that he was not the source. Furthermore, Seven did not condone or authorise the alleged payments to Mr Lehrmann referred to in the affidavits.”

After what is expected to be a two-day hearing, Lee will revisit his judgment over the weekend and said he hopes to deliver his decision next week.

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‘The machine did it coldly’: Israel used AI to identify 37,000 Hamas targets

Israeli intelligence sources reveal use of ‘Lavender’ system in Gaza war and claim permission given to kill civilians in pursuit of low-ranking militants

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The Israeli military’s bombing campaign in Gaza used a previously undisclosed AI-powered database that at one stage identified 37,000 potential targets based on their apparent links to Hamas, according to intelligence sources involved in the war.

In addition to talking about their use of the AI system, called Lavender, the intelligence sources claim that Israeli military officials permitted large numbers of Palestinian civilians to be killed, particularly during the early weeks and months of the conflict.

Their unusually candid testimony provides a rare glimpse into the first-hand experiences of Israeli intelligence officials who have been using machine-learning systems to help identify targets during the six-month war.

Israel’s use of powerful AI systems in its war on Hamas has entered uncharted territory for advanced warfare, raising a host of legal and moral questions, and transforming the relationship between military personnel and machines.

“This is unparalleled, in my memory,” said one intelligence officer who used Lavender, adding that they had more faith in a “statistical mechanism” than a grieving soldier. “Everyone there, including me, lost people on October 7. The machine did it coldly. And that made it easier.”

Another Lavender user questioned whether humans’ role in the selection process was meaningful. “I would invest 20 seconds for each target at this stage, and do dozens of them every day. I had zero added-value as a human, apart from being a stamp of approval. It saved a lot of time.”

The testimony from the six intelligence officers, all who have been involved in using AI systems to identify Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) targets in the war, was given to the journalist Yuval Abraham for a report published by the Israeli-Palestinian publication +972 Magazine and the Hebrew-language outlet Local Call.

Their accounts were shared exclusively with the Guardian in advance of publication. All six said that Lavender had played a central role in the war, processing masses of data to rapidly identify potential “junior” operatives to target. Four of the sources said that, at one stage early in the war, Lavender listed as many as 37,000 Palestinian men who had been linked by the AI system to Hamas or PIJ.

Lavender was developed by the Israel Defense Forces’ elite intelligence division, Unit 8200, which is comparable to the US’s National Security Agency or GCHQ in the UK.

Several of the sources described how, for certain categories of targets, the IDF applied pre-authorised allowances for the estimated number of civilians who could be killed before a strike was authorised.

Two sources said that during the early weeks of the war they were permitted to kill 15 or 20 civilians during airstrikes on low-ranking militants. Attacks on such targets were typically carried out using unguided munitions known as “dumb bombs”, the sources said, destroying entire homes and killing all their occupants.

“You don’t want to waste expensive bombs on unimportant people – it’s very expensive for the country and there’s a shortage [of those bombs],” one intelligence officer said. Another said the principal question they were faced with was whether the “collateral damage” to civilians allowed for an attack.

“Because we usually carried out the attacks with dumb bombs, and that meant literally dropping the whole house on its occupants. But even if an attack is averted, you don’t care – you immediately move on to the next target. Because of the system, the targets never end. You have another 36,000 waiting.”

According to conflict experts, if Israel has been using dumb bombs to flatten the homes of thousands of Palestinians who were linked, with the assistance of AI, to militant groups in Gaza, that could help explain the shockingly high death toll in the war.

The health ministry in the Hamas-run territory says 32,000 Palestinians have been killed in the conflict in the past six months. UN data shows that in the first month of the war alone, 1,340 families suffered multiple losses, with 312 families losing more than 10 members.

Responding to the publication of the testimonies in +972 and Local Call, the IDF said in a statement that its operations were carried out in accordance with the rules of proportionality under international law. It said dumb bombs are “standard weaponry” that are used by IDF pilots in a manner that ensures “a high level of precision”.

The statement described Lavender as a database used “to cross-reference intelligence sources, in order to produce up-to-date layers of information on the military operatives of terrorist organisations. This is not a list of confirmed military operatives eligible to attack.

“The IDF does not use an artificial intelligence system that identifies terrorist operatives or tries to predict whether a person is a terrorist,” it added. “Information systems are merely tools for analysts in the target identification process.”

Lavender created a database of tens of thousands of individuals

In earlier military operations conducted by the IDF, producing human targets was often a more labour-intensive process. Multiple sources who described target development in previous wars to the Guardian, said the decision to “incriminate” an individual, or identify them as a legitimate target, would be discussed and then signed off by a legal adviser.

In the weeks and months after 7 October, this model for approving strikes on human targets was dramatically accelerated, according to the sources. As the IDF’s bombardment of Gaza intensified, they said, commanders demanded a continuous pipeline of targets.

“We were constantly being pressured: ‘Bring us more targets.’ They really shouted at us,” said one intelligence officer. “We were told: now we have to fuck up Hamas, no matter what the cost. Whatever you can, you bomb.”

To meet this demand, the IDF came to rely heavily on Lavender to generate a database of individuals judged to have the characteristics of a PIJ or Hamas militant.

Details about the specific kinds of data used to train Lavender’s algorithm, or how the programme reached its conclusions, are not included in the accounts published by +972 or Local Call. However, the sources said that during the first few weeks of the war, Unit 8200 refined Lavender’s algorithm and tweaked its search parameters.

After randomly sampling and cross-checking its predictions, the unit concluded Lavender had achieved a 90% accuracy rate, the sources said, leading the IDF to approve its sweeping use as a target recommendation tool.

Lavender created a database of tens of thousands of individuals who were marked as predominantly low-ranking members of Hamas’s military wing, they added. This was used alongside another AI-based decision support system, called the Gospel, which recommended buildings and structures as targets rather than individuals.

The accounts include first-hand testimony of how intelligence officers worked with Lavender and how the reach of its dragnet could be adjusted. “At its peak, the system managed to generate 37,000 people as potential human targets,” one of the sources said. “But the numbers changed all the time, because it depends on where you set the bar of what a Hamas operative is.”

They added: “There were times when a Hamas operative was defined more broadly, and then the machine started bringing us all kinds of civil defence personnel, police officers, on whom it would be a shame to waste bombs. They help the Hamas government, but they don’t really endanger soldiers.”

Before the war, US and Israeli estimated membership of Hamas’s military wing at approximately 25-30,000 people.

In the weeks after the Hamas-led 7 October assault on southern Israel, in which Palestinian militants killed nearly 1,200 Israelis and kidnapped about 240 people, the sources said there was a decision to treat Palestinian men linked to Hamas’s military wing as potential targets, regardless of their rank or importance.

The IDF’s targeting processes in the most intensive phase of the bombardment were also relaxed, they said. “There was a completely permissive policy regarding the casualties of [bombing] operations,” one source said. “A policy so permissive that in my opinion it had an element of revenge.”

Another source, who justified the use of Lavender to help identify low-ranking targets, said that “when it comes to a junior militant, you don’t want to invest manpower and time in it”. They said that in wartime there was insufficient time to carefully “incriminate every target”.

“So you’re willing to take the margin of error of using artificial intelligence, risking collateral damage and civilians dying, and risking attacking by mistake, and to live with it,” they added.

‘It’s much easier to bomb a family’s home’

The testimonies published by +972 and Local Call may explain how such a western military with such advanced capabilities, with weapons that can conduct highly surgical strikes, has conducted a war with such a vast human toll.

When it came to targeting low-ranking Hamas and PIJ suspects, they said, the preference was to attack when they were believed to be at home. “We were not interested in killing [Hamas] operatives only when they were in a military building or engaged in a military activity,” one said. “It’s much easier to bomb a family’s home. The system is built to look for them in these situations.”

Such a strategy risked higher numbers of civilian casualties, and the sources said the IDF imposed pre-authorised limits on the number of civilians it deemed acceptable to kill in a strike aimed at a single Hamas militant. The ratio was said to have changed over time, and varied according to the seniority of the target.

According to +972 and Local Call, the IDF judged it permissible to kill more than 100 civilians in attacks on a top-ranking Hamas officials. “We had a calculation for how many [civilians could be killed] for the brigade commander, how many [civilians] for a battalion commander, and so on,” one source said.

“There were regulations, but they were just very lenient,” another added. “We’ve killed people with collateral damage in the high double digits, if not low triple digits. These are things that haven’t happened before.” There appears to have been significant fluctuations in the figure that military commanders would tolerate at different stages of the war.

One source said that the limit on permitted civilian casualties “went up and down” over time, and at one point was as low as five. During the first week of the conflict, the source said, permission was given to kill 15 non-combatants to take out junior militants in Gaza. However, they said estimates of civilian casualties were imprecise, as it was not possible to know definitively how many people were in a building.

Another intelligence officer said that more recently in the conflict, the rate of permitted collateral damage was brought down again. But at one stage earlier in the war they were authorised to kill up to “20 uninvolved civilians” for a single operative, regardless of their rank, military importance, or age.

“It’s not just that you can kill any person who is a Hamas soldier, which is clearly permitted and legitimate in terms of international law,” they said. “But they directly tell you: ‘You are allowed to kill them along with many civilians.’ … In practice, the proportionality criterion did not exist.”

The IDF statement said its procedures “require conducting an individual assessment of the anticipated military advantage and collateral damage expected … The IDF does not carry out strikes when the expected collateral damage from the strike is excessive in relation to the military advantage.” It added: “The IDF outright rejects the claim regarding any policy to kill tens of thousands of people in their homes.”

Experts in international humanitarian law who spoke to the Guardian expressed alarm at accounts of the IDF accepting and pre-authorising collateral damage ratios as high as 20 civilians, particularly for lower-ranking militants. They said militaries must assess proportionality for each individual strike.

An international law expert at the US state department said they had “never remotely heard of a one to 15 ratio being deemed acceptable, especially for lower-level combatants. There’s a lot of leeway, but that strikes me as extreme”.

Sarah Harrison, a former lawyer at the US Department of Defense, now an analyst at Crisis Group, said: “While there may be certain occasions where 15 collateral civilian deaths could be proportionate, there are other times where it definitely wouldn’t be. You can’t just set a tolerable number for a category of targets and say that it’ll be lawfully proportionate in each case.”

Whatever the legal or moral justification for Israel’s bombing strategy, some of its intelligence officers appear now to be questioning the approach set by their commanders. “No one thought about what to do afterward, when the war is over, or how it will be possible to live in Gaza,” one said.

Another said that after the 7 October attacks by Hamas, the atmosphere in the IDF was “painful and vindictive”. “There was a dissonance: on the one hand, people here were frustrated that we were not attacking enough. On the other hand, you see at the end of the day that another thousand Gazans have died, most of them civilians.”

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Meet the Sydney volunteers who are feeding families fleeing Gaza

Palestinians arriving in Australia on visitor visas are facing hardship – and community organisations are stepping in to help

Alaa leans back in his chair after a hearty iftar at Shanglish, a Sydney restaurant that has been offering free dinners to Palestinian refugees.

“Without their generosity, we would struggle to eat at all,” he says.

“I have brought my family here three times this week, each time they are more than accommodating. They even call me and ask if I am coming today. We are indebted to them.”

Alaa has asked to remain anonymous, concerned that his words could affect his family’s application for refugee status. He is on a student visa and brought his family to Sydney on visitor visas as the death toll from Israel’s onslaught on Gaza continued to climb. More than 32,000 people are reported to have died so far.

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As his three children quietly eat their dinner, and with a buzzing buffet in the background, Alaa explains how difficult it has been since they arrived.

“Since they are on visitor visas, they do not receive any kind of support – we are out here on our own, trying to make it work.”

Arrivals from Palestine have been trickling into Australia, many on visitor visas and without legal or financial support.

Into this void have stepped community organisations. Some have organised donation drives to provide people with essential items including clothes and furniture, some have worked to provide food, alongside legal and settlement services.

Shanglish, a restaurant and cafe chain in Bankstown, has shut down one of its branches and repurposed it as a soup kitchen for the holy month of Ramadan, during which Muslims fast from dawn until sunset.

Community Care Kitchen organised the recommissioning of Shanglish, paying the rent and staff salaries for a month, and using it to provide families from Gaza food packages to break their fast.

Sana Karanouh, one of the leading volunteers at the organisation, says the repurposed cafe cannot meet the demand.

“We are spending upwards of $5,000 a day, feeding up to 45 families a night,” she says. “We have faced an influx of people, struggling without government support and amid this cost-of-living crisis.

“The families who are fed by the program are extremely grateful, they tell us it’s the only good thing happening to them at the moment.”

Karanouh explains that families register with the organisation, then call to place an order in the morning that they can pick up just before sunset.

“On the first two days of Ramadan, our phone lines completely collapsed due to the demand,” she says. “We tend to get different people every day, different families. These are people who were not poor in Gaza but have been through hell.”

Karanouh says there is “huge community backing” but more can be done to support the arrivals.

Karima Hazim couldn’t agree more. The head of Sunday Kitchen, a cooking school that specialises in Lebanese dishes, launched a donation drive called Bake for Gaza, where volunteers are invited to help her bake and sell boxes of ma’moul – a Levantine biscuit baked on special occasions, such as for Eid or Lent.

All profit goes towards supporting families arriving from Gaza. Hazim says she has been overwhelmed by the demand.

“I thought I’d be baking 20 to 30 boxes,” she says. “The first night I put it on Instagram, I got 100 orders. We have had over 200 orders. People are looking for ways to show their support.

“Some of the people ordering don’t even know what ma’moul is, they are just looking for some way to support people from Gaza. Many people pick up the boxes in tears. They know what is going on, they are grieving.”

Hazim says she has assembled a group of 10 to 15 volunteers – “complete strangers until now” – to complete the orders with donated ingredients at a commercial kitchen provided for free.

“We know we’d struggle to get any donations into Gaza, so this is what we can do now. Some of the money is handed directly to the arrivals, to buy whatever they want or need.”

Hazim says the donations have been used to pay for rent, clothes and essentials.

“Gaza has been on everyone’s mind for six months. It’s been a long time, of grief and misery. We had to do something.”

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More than 32,000 Palestinians have been killed in Israeli attacks on Gaza over the last six months – the majority women and children. For the Arab diaspora in Australia the rising death toll and looming famine has cast a dark shadow over the joy of Easter and Ramadan.

Nour Haydar joins a group of women making a beloved Levantine biscuit known as maamoul to raise money for recently arrived Palestinian families. She talks to Sunday Kitchen co-founder Karima Hazim about the initiative and meets a mother of three who fled the besieged territory to seek safety in Australia

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Exclusive: Trump Media saved in 2022 by Russian-American under criminal investigation

Trump’s social media company went public relying partly on loans from trust managed by person of interest to prosecutors

Donald Trump’s social media company Trump Media managed to go public last week only after it had been kept afloat in 2022 by emergency loans provided in part by a Russian-American businessman under scrutiny in a federal insider-trading and money-laundering investigation.

The former US president stands to gain billions of dollars – his stake is currently valued at about $4bn – from the merger between Trump Media and Technology Group and the blank-check company Digital World Acquisition Corporation, which took the parent company of Truth Social public.

But Trump Media almost did not make it to the merger after regulators opened a securities investigation into the merger in 2021 and caused the company to burn through cash at an extraordinary rate as it waited to get the green light for its stock market debut.

The situation led Trump Media to take emergency loans, including from an entity called ES Family Trust, which opened an account with Paxum Bank, a small bank registered on the Caribbean island of Dominica that is best known for providing financial services to the porn industry.

Through leaked documents, the Guardian has learned that ES Family Trust operated like a shell company for a Russian-American businessman named Anton Postolnikov, who co-owns Paxum Bank and has been a subject of a years-long joint federal criminal investigation by the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) into the Trump Media merger.

The existence of the trust was first reported by the Guardian last year. However, who controlled the account, how the trust was connected to Paxum Bank, and how the money had been funneled through the trust to Trump Media was unknown.

The new details about the trust are drawn from documents including: Paxum Bank records showing Postolnikov having access to the trust’s account, the papers that created the trust showing as its settlor a lawyer in St Petersburg, Russia, and three years of the trust’s financial transactions.

The concern surrounding the loans to Trump Media is that ES Family Trust may have been used to complete a transaction that Paxum itself could not.

Paxum Bank does not offer loans in the US as it lacks a US banking license and is not regulated by the FDIC. Postolnikov appears to have used the trust to loan money to help save Trump Media – and the Truth Social platform – because his bank itself could not furnish the loan.

Postolnikov, the nephew of Aleksandr Smirnov, an ally of the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, has not been charged with a crime. In response to an email to Postolnikov seeking comment, a lawyer in Dominica representing Paxum Bank warned of legal action for reporting the contents of the leaked documents.

There is also no indication that Trump or Trump Media had any idea about the nature of the loans beyond that they were opaque, nor has the company or its executives been accused of wrongdoing. A spokesperson for Trump Media did not respond to a request for comment.

But Postolnikov has been under increasing scrutiny in the criminal investigation into the Trump Media merger. Most recently, he has been listed on search warrant affidavits alongside several associates – one of whom was indicted last month for money laundering on top of earlier insider-trading charges.

Postolnikov and the trust

In late 2021, Trump Media was facing financial trouble after the original planned merger with Digital World was delayed indefinitely when the Securities and Exchange Commission opened an investigation into the merger, Trump Media’s since-ousted co-founder-turned-whistleblower Will Wilkerson recounted in an interview.

Part of the problem was that Trump Media struggled to get financing because traditional banks were reluctant to lend millions to Trump’s social media company in the wake of the January 6 Capitol attack, Wilkerson said.

Trump Media eventually found some lenders, including ES Family Trust, but the sequence of events was curious.

ES Family Trust was established on 18 May 2021, its creation papers show. Postolnikov’s “user” access to the account was “verified” on 30 November 2021 by a Paxum Bank manager in Dominica. The trust was funded for the first time on 2 December 2021.

Trump Media then received the loans from ES Family Trust: $2m on 23 December 2021, and $6m on 17 February 2022.

The loans came in the form of convertible promissory notes, meaning ES Family Trust would gain a major stake in Trump Media because it was offering the money in exchange for Trump Media agreeing to convert the loan principal into “shares of Company Stock”.

Oddly, the notes were never signed. But the investment in Trump Media proved to be huge: while precise figures can only be known by Trump Media, ES Family Trust’s stake in Trump Media is worth between $20m and $40m even after the sharp decline of the company’s share price in the wake of a poor earnings report.

The ES Family Trust account also appears to have benefited Postolnikov personally. As the criminal investigation into the Trump Media deal intensified towards the end of last year, the trust recorded several transfers to Postolnikov with the subject line “Partial Loan Return”.

In total, the documents showed that the trust transferred $4.8m to Postolnikov’s account, although $3m was inexplicably “reversed”.

(On 17 July 2023, Postolnikov received $300,000. On 17 October 2023, Postolnikov received $1.5m, before it was reversed the next day; later the same day, Postolnikov again received $1.5m, which was also reversed. On 19 October 2023, Postolnikov received the $1.5m for a third and final time.)

The reason for the trust’s creation remains unknown. Aside from the money that went to Trump Media, the trust’s statements show the trust has directly invested money with only two other companies: $10.8m to Eleven Ventures LLC, a venture capital firm, and $1m to Wedbush Securities, a wealth management firm.

The current status of ES Family Trust is also unknown. The trust’s address is listed as a residential home in Hollywood, Florida. But, according to the property website Redfin, the six-bedroom home appears to have been sold in December 2023.

The creation papers also contained something notable: a declaration that, if the original trustee – a Paxum employee named Angel Pacheco – stepped down from the role, his successor would be a certain individual named Michael Shvartsman.

Sprawling money-laundering investigation

Last month, federal prosecutors charged Michael Shvartsman, a close associate of Postolnikov, with money laundering in a superseding indictment after previously charging him and two others in July with insider-trading Digital World shares. Shvartsman and his co-defendants pleaded not guilty.

At least part of the evidence against Shvartsman came from a confidential informant for the DHS, court filings show: in one March 2023 meeting with the informant and an associate, Shvartsman mentioned a friend who owned a bank in Dominica and made bridge loans to Trump Media.

“[Shvartsman] stated that a friend of his owns a bank in the island of Dominica and would be able to provide banking services to Russian and Ukraine Nationals if the [confidential informant] had other clients in need of that service,” the DHS report said.

“[Shvartsman’s associate] told the [confidential informant] that he does not think the SEC would be able to go after [Shvartsman] for his part in the investment but mentioned that [Shvartsman] essentially provided ‘bridge financing’ for the firm behind the Truth Social media platform,” it said.

The unredacted parts of the DHS report do not specify whether the “friend” was Postolnikov and what the “bridge financing” referred to – but the report left open the possibility that Shvartsman also had a role with the trust.

A lawyer for Shvartsman declined to comment on his client’s relationship with Postolnikov. A spokesperson for the US attorney’s office for the southern district of New York also declined to comment.

It is unclear whether federal prosecutors are aware that Trump Media was propped up by Postolnikov via ES Family Trust. At the same time, the money-laundering investigation surrounding the Trump Media merger and the scrutiny on Postolnikov appears to have ballooned in recent months.

The investigation into potential money laundering appears to have started after Wilkerson’s lawyers Phil Brewster, Stephen Bell and Patrick Mincey alerted the US attorney’s office in the southern district of New York to the ES Family Trust loans in October 2022.

Months later, in June 2023, the FBI expanded its investigation to work jointly with the Department of Homeland Security’s El Dorado taskforce, which specializes in money laundering, and its Illicit Proceeds and Foreign Corruption group, which targets corrupt foreign officials who use US entities to launder illicit funds.

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Exclusive: Trump Media saved in 2022 by Russian-American under criminal investigation

Trump’s social media company went public relying partly on loans from trust managed by person of interest to prosecutors

Donald Trump’s social media company Trump Media managed to go public last week only after it had been kept afloat in 2022 by emergency loans provided in part by a Russian-American businessman under scrutiny in a federal insider-trading and money-laundering investigation.

The former US president stands to gain billions of dollars – his stake is currently valued at about $4bn – from the merger between Trump Media and Technology Group and the blank-check company Digital World Acquisition Corporation, which took the parent company of Truth Social public.

But Trump Media almost did not make it to the merger after regulators opened a securities investigation into the merger in 2021 and caused the company to burn through cash at an extraordinary rate as it waited to get the green light for its stock market debut.

The situation led Trump Media to take emergency loans, including from an entity called ES Family Trust, which opened an account with Paxum Bank, a small bank registered on the Caribbean island of Dominica that is best known for providing financial services to the porn industry.

Through leaked documents, the Guardian has learned that ES Family Trust operated like a shell company for a Russian-American businessman named Anton Postolnikov, who co-owns Paxum Bank and has been a subject of a years-long joint federal criminal investigation by the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) into the Trump Media merger.

The existence of the trust was first reported by the Guardian last year. However, who controlled the account, how the trust was connected to Paxum Bank, and how the money had been funneled through the trust to Trump Media was unknown.

The new details about the trust are drawn from documents including: Paxum Bank records showing Postolnikov having access to the trust’s account, the papers that created the trust showing as its settlor a lawyer in St Petersburg, Russia, and three years of the trust’s financial transactions.

The concern surrounding the loans to Trump Media is that ES Family Trust may have been used to complete a transaction that Paxum itself could not.

Paxum Bank does not offer loans in the US as it lacks a US banking license and is not regulated by the FDIC. Postolnikov appears to have used the trust to loan money to help save Trump Media – and the Truth Social platform – because his bank itself could not furnish the loan.

Postolnikov, the nephew of Aleksandr Smirnov, an ally of the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, has not been charged with a crime. In response to an email to Postolnikov seeking comment, a lawyer in Dominica representing Paxum Bank warned of legal action for reporting the contents of the leaked documents.

There is also no indication that Trump or Trump Media had any idea about the nature of the loans beyond that they were opaque, nor has the company or its executives been accused of wrongdoing. A spokesperson for Trump Media did not respond to a request for comment.

But Postolnikov has been under increasing scrutiny in the criminal investigation into the Trump Media merger. Most recently, he has been listed on search warrant affidavits alongside several associates – one of whom was indicted last month for money laundering on top of earlier insider-trading charges.

Postolnikov and the trust

In late 2021, Trump Media was facing financial trouble after the original planned merger with Digital World was delayed indefinitely when the Securities and Exchange Commission opened an investigation into the merger, Trump Media’s since-ousted co-founder-turned-whistleblower Will Wilkerson recounted in an interview.

Part of the problem was that Trump Media struggled to get financing because traditional banks were reluctant to lend millions to Trump’s social media company in the wake of the January 6 Capitol attack, Wilkerson said.

Trump Media eventually found some lenders, including ES Family Trust, but the sequence of events was curious.

ES Family Trust was established on 18 May 2021, its creation papers show. Postolnikov’s “user” access to the account was “verified” on 30 November 2021 by a Paxum Bank manager in Dominica. The trust was funded for the first time on 2 December 2021.

Trump Media then received the loans from ES Family Trust: $2m on 23 December 2021, and $6m on 17 February 2022.

The loans came in the form of convertible promissory notes, meaning ES Family Trust would gain a major stake in Trump Media because it was offering the money in exchange for Trump Media agreeing to convert the loan principal into “shares of Company Stock”.

Oddly, the notes were never signed. But the investment in Trump Media proved to be huge: while precise figures can only be known by Trump Media, ES Family Trust’s stake in Trump Media is worth between $20m and $40m even after the sharp decline of the company’s share price in the wake of a poor earnings report.

The ES Family Trust account also appears to have benefited Postolnikov personally. As the criminal investigation into the Trump Media deal intensified towards the end of last year, the trust recorded several transfers to Postolnikov with the subject line “Partial Loan Return”.

In total, the documents showed that the trust transferred $4.8m to Postolnikov’s account, although $3m was inexplicably “reversed”.

(On 17 July 2023, Postolnikov received $300,000. On 17 October 2023, Postolnikov received $1.5m, before it was reversed the next day; later the same day, Postolnikov again received $1.5m, which was also reversed. On 19 October 2023, Postolnikov received the $1.5m for a third and final time.)

The reason for the trust’s creation remains unknown. Aside from the money that went to Trump Media, the trust’s statements show the trust has directly invested money with only two other companies: $10.8m to Eleven Ventures LLC, a venture capital firm, and $1m to Wedbush Securities, a wealth management firm.

The current status of ES Family Trust is also unknown. The trust’s address is listed as a residential home in Hollywood, Florida. But, according to the property website Redfin, the six-bedroom home appears to have been sold in December 2023.

The creation papers also contained something notable: a declaration that, if the original trustee – a Paxum employee named Angel Pacheco – stepped down from the role, his successor would be a certain individual named Michael Shvartsman.

Sprawling money-laundering investigation

Last month, federal prosecutors charged Michael Shvartsman, a close associate of Postolnikov, with money laundering in a superseding indictment after previously charging him and two others in July with insider-trading Digital World shares. Shvartsman and his co-defendants pleaded not guilty.

At least part of the evidence against Shvartsman came from a confidential informant for the DHS, court filings show: in one March 2023 meeting with the informant and an associate, Shvartsman mentioned a friend who owned a bank in Dominica and made bridge loans to Trump Media.

“[Shvartsman] stated that a friend of his owns a bank in the island of Dominica and would be able to provide banking services to Russian and Ukraine Nationals if the [confidential informant] had other clients in need of that service,” the DHS report said.

“[Shvartsman’s associate] told the [confidential informant] that he does not think the SEC would be able to go after [Shvartsman] for his part in the investment but mentioned that [Shvartsman] essentially provided ‘bridge financing’ for the firm behind the Truth Social media platform,” it said.

The unredacted parts of the DHS report do not specify whether the “friend” was Postolnikov and what the “bridge financing” referred to – but the report left open the possibility that Shvartsman also had a role with the trust.

A lawyer for Shvartsman declined to comment on his client’s relationship with Postolnikov. A spokesperson for the US attorney’s office for the southern district of New York also declined to comment.

It is unclear whether federal prosecutors are aware that Trump Media was propped up by Postolnikov via ES Family Trust. At the same time, the money-laundering investigation surrounding the Trump Media merger and the scrutiny on Postolnikov appears to have ballooned in recent months.

The investigation into potential money laundering appears to have started after Wilkerson’s lawyers Phil Brewster, Stephen Bell and Patrick Mincey alerted the US attorney’s office in the southern district of New York to the ES Family Trust loans in October 2022.

Months later, in June 2023, the FBI expanded its investigation to work jointly with the Department of Homeland Security’s El Dorado taskforce, which specializes in money laundering, and its Illicit Proceeds and Foreign Corruption group, which targets corrupt foreign officials who use US entities to launder illicit funds.

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Trump sues ex-Apprentice contestants over ‘failings’ in setting up Truth Social

Former president seeks to block Wesley Moss and Andrew Litinsky from receiving Trump Media stock worth over $400m

Donald Trump sued two former contestants on The Apprentice, his hit NBC reality show, who became co-founders of Trump Media and Technology Group, claiming they failed to set up the venture properly and should not get promised stock worth more than $400m.

Trump fronted The Apprentice, in which contestants competed for a job at the Trump Organization, from 2004 to 2015. The show coined Trump’s catchphrase, “You’re fired!”, though he ended up fired himself, after entering Republican presidential politics and making racist comments about Mexicans.

Wesley Moss and Andrew Litinsky met as Apprentice contestants in 2004. In 2021, after Trump was thrown off major social media platforms for inciting the January 6 Capitol attack, as he sought to overturn his election defeat by Joe Biden, the two men pitched Trump on starting his own platform, which became Truth Social.

“This was a phenomenal opportunity for Moss and Litinsky,” said the suit filed by Trump in Florida in late March and first reported by Bloomberg News on Tuesday.

Though the two men were “riding President Trump’s coattails”, the suit said, “all [they] needed to do was diligently, faithfully and loyally execute on a short-term plan: get TMTG’s corporate governance established, get Truth Social ready to launch, and find a suitable special purpose acquisition company to take the new company public and access capital to advance TMTG’s business plan”.

Trump Media’s path to market was anything but smooth – including, as the Guardian revealed on Wednesday, a 2022 rescue through emergency loans in part provided by a Russian-American businessman under scrutiny in a federal insider-trading and money-laundering investigation.

Last week, Trump Media finally debuted as a publicly traded stock, amid predictions it could boost Trump’s worth at a time of considerable financial stress, as he runs for president while fighting 88 criminal charges and paying multimillion-dollar bonds in civil cases.

As Bloomberg put it, however, Trump Media has proved to be a “hot but flailing meme stock”, valued in the billions but widely seen as extremely unstable. On Monday, after Trump Media was revealed to have lost $58.2m last year, the value of Trump’s stake in the company dropped by $1bn.

Trump’s lawsuit said Moss and Litinsky were due to receive 8.6m shares, which at Tuesday’s closing price would be worth about $444m.

But, the suit said, they “failed spectacularly at every turn” in setting up Trump Media, failing to establish corporate governance and making “a series of reckless and wasteful decisions” that damaged merger plans and put the project “on ice” for more than a year and a half.

Once Moss and Litinsky left the company, the suit said, they attempted to thwart its plans, including by filing their own lawsuit in Delaware, seeking their promised stake.

That suit was filed in February. In a hearing in the case on Monday, Bloomberg reported, the judge, Sam Glasscock III, professed himself “gobsmacked” to learn Trump had filed suit in Florida rather than make a counterclaim in Delaware.

Glasscock said he would consider sanctions against Trump.

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Albanese signals May budget likely to include extension of energy price relief for small business and families

In speech PM says measure has ‘helped people under pressure – and it helped fight inflation’

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Anthony Albanese will give the strongest signal yet that the government will extend energy price relief, as he declares that small businesses and families will be “front and centre” in the May budget.

In an address to the Council of Small Business Organisations of Australia (Cosboa) on Thursday, the prime minister will say that the cost of living measure has “helped people under pressure – and it helped fight inflation”, signalling the support of up to $650 to 1m small businesses and 5m families will probably be rolled over in the May budget.

Albanese will also speak about the need to encourage uptake of rooftop solar, and take aim at the opposition leader, Peter Dutton, for trying to enlist small business into his “politics of negativity and conflict”.

The government announced in December 2022 that it would deliver energy price relief through a system of caps on coal and gas prices, and $1.5bn of consumer rebates from 1 July 2023. The measure benefited small businesses and households in receipt of government payments or who hold concession cards.

Despite falling power prices relative to the heights of 2022, Labor has been criticised by the opposition for failing to stand by a pre-election estimate that showed the increased uptake of renewables could save households $275 by 2025.

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On Thursday Albanese will say that “our government understands that for small business – as for Australian families – energy bills remain a source of financial pressure”.

“That’s why the energy bill relief package I negotiated with the states and territories delivered up to $650 in savings for around 1 million small businesses, along with 5 million families,” Albanese will say, according to an advance copy of his speech seen by Guardian Australia.

“Helping Australian families and small family businesses with their energy bills was a key priority in last year’s budget.

“It helped people under pressure – and it helped fight inflation.

“And as we put together next month’s budget, small businesses and families will again be front and centre in our thinking.”

Albanese will say small business has “consistently led the nation in embracing solar power to take control of their bills”, with nearly one in three businesses using rooftop solar.

He will say that the figure is a “great start” and that the number will rise with “right investments and support and the continuing advances in technology”.

He will also deride the opposition’s energy policies, saying Dutton has a “plan to have a plan to build nuclear reactors somewhere up and down the east coast, some time before 2050 at a cost somewhere in the hundreds of billions of dollars”.

Albanese will also take aim at Dutton for his speech to Cosboa, in which “he warned you about being ‘supine’ and ‘silent’”.

“Demanding that you criticise the government more loudly and more often. Trying to drag you into his politics of negativity and conflict.”

Albanese will commit to keep working with Cosboa “on industrial relations, on energy, right across the economic agenda”, arguing that unlike the Coalition “we don’t think cooperation is a sign of weakness”.

After last week’s commitment of $1bn to manufacture solar panels in Australia, Albanese says Australia needs to “show the dynamism and drive of small business” to compete and succeed in a competitive global environment.

“[We need] the resourcefulness to anticipate change – and shape it,” he will say. “The courage to invest in new ideas and new industries, the ambition for our people and our products to win in the world.

“This is what I mean when I talk about a future made in Australia. Investing in our economic self-reliance and lifting our nation up the international value chain.”

In addition to energy price relief, Labor has restructured the stage-three tax cuts to benefit low- and middle-income earners.

After it raised jobseeker and commonwealth rent assistance in the 2023 budget, the Albanese government is likely to face renewed calls from the economic inclusion advisory committee to further improve the adequacy of those payments.

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Call for investigation after NSW police brief media on alleged crimes involving five-year-old

Barwon MP Roy Butler says ‘flashy headlines create bias’ after it was revealed officers have not spoken to any of the alleged offenders nor laid any charges

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New South Wales’s peak Indigenous legal body has called for an independent investigation after state police briefed media outlets about the alleged involvement of a five-year-old in a break-and-enter and car theft before officers had spoken to the alleged offenders or laid charges.

Repeatedly asked about the incident in the outback town of Bourke over subsequent days, police media refused to officially confirm the ages of the alleged offenders despite two metropolitan mastheads quoting separate officers referring to a five-year-old.

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Guardian Australia understands the assertion that one of the alleged offenders was five was based on an eyewitness account, which responding officers held confidence in.

News of the alleged incident was splashed across the Daily Telegraph on Saturday under a headline declaring the child the “most wanted five-year-old”. The child was also described as a “kindergarten crim”.

The Sydney Morning Herald reported the incident as part of a story on regional crime concerns, quoting an officer who said: “In Bourke in the early hours of Saturday morning, we had a five-year-old child with two 12-year-old children breaking into a property and stealing a car.

“I’ve never in 30 years of the police service seen anything like that.”

Later on Saturday, police released a statement saying that four people reportedly broke into a home in Bourke about 2am on Friday 22 March.

“They (the occupants) awoke to find their Mitsubishi Outlander was being stolen from outside the home and police were notified,” a police spokesperson said.

The Mitsubishi was later seen driving on The Weir Road and “a pursuit was initiated before being terminated shortly after due to safety concerns”.

Officers found the car about 10.50am and it was seized for forensic examination, the spokesperson said.

“No arrests have been made and inquiries continue into the incident.”

On Monday, a police spokesperson said: “The investigation is ongoing and while inquiries are still being conducted, we are unable to speculate to the ages of the people involved.”

On Tuesday, police were yet to speak with the four alleged offenders and had not laid charges.

The chief executive of the Aboriginal Legal Service, Karly Warner, said there were “very serious questions” to answer about the origin and intent of the briefings to media, and called for an independent, external investigation.

“These stories are fuelling fear while doing nothing to make our communities safer,” she said.

“Instead they are inciting panic about children who are probably too young to tie their shoelaces, let alone be capable of crime – cognitively, physically or legally.

“We all deserve answers as to why [the police] are doing this, under whose direction, and at what cost to children in NSW.”

NSW independent MP Roy Butler, whose electorate encompasses Bourke, said on Wednesday “there is a trickle-down effect of clickbait journalism on regional and rural communities”.

“I understand that media reporting requires catchy headlines … but what flashy headlines can often do is create a bias,” Butler said. “In the case of regional crime, our bush towns will be stereotyped as ‘bad’.

“We do have a serious crime problem in some Barwon communities, and what is needed is intervention to divert these young people towards more pro-social behaviour. Not tabloid journalism. We all have a role to play in changing the culture that these kids are growing up in, including the media.”

Two weeks ago the government passed legislation making it harder for teenagers to get bail and criminalising “posting and boasting” about criminal offences on social media.

The laws were condemned by reform advocates who said the changes would push the state further from its Closing the Gap targets.

The premier, Chris Minns, travelled to Moree on Wednesday to announce a partnership between NSW police, the NRL and Youth Justice NSW to create programs to help ‘at risk’ youth.

Asked about the criticisms of the bail law changes, Minns said the government was committed to doing more on diversion programs for adolescents in regional communities.

“I’m convinced that if we get that balance right, we can reduce the rate of reoffending,” he said.

“My great fear is that we’ll see a young person commit an offence, particularly in a motor vehicle, where they kill themselves or their family members or their friends or they kill a member of the public.

“That would be absolutely terrible. I don’t want that to happen and I genuinely don’t believe that’s in the interest of the young person either.”

Greens justice spokesperson Sue Higginson said the government’s “choice to go down this regressive … law and order tough on crime road” was creating panic.

“It leads to police exercising impunity and pushing out unchecked sensationalist media which results in dangerous and unhelpful headlines,” she said.

“If we genuinely want to deal with youth crime and criminal behaviour we need to follow the evidence and deal with the causes of crime and the failure of social support services within our communities that should be supporting offenders, not throwing kids in prison.”

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Queensland’s first festival pill-testing service finds ‘Canberra ketamine’ sold as MDMA

Rabbits Eat Lettuce festival, near Warwick, held Australia’s first multi-day festival clinic last weekend

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The organisers of Queensland’s first festival pill-testing service say many drugs sold as MDMA turned out to be other substances including one recently dubbed “Canberra ketamine”.

The Rabbits Eat Lettuce festival, near Warwick, held the first multi-day festival clinic in Australia on the weekend, after two patrons died at the same event in 2019.

The Pill Testing Australia clinical lead David Caldicott said it was hard to know if the clinic saved lives in 2024, but pointed to the lack of a need for paramedics as a win for safety.

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“We often see a lot of ambulance transports from festivals,” he said.

“You have to be quite naive to assume that people are going to this sort of event with the intention of behaving like members of a monastery. And frequently in Australia, sadly, tragically, we see people over-indulging and not using any restraint.”

According to data released by Queensland health on Wednesday, 257 festivalgoers used the testing clinic over the Easter long weekend.

Caldicott said that was equal to about 10% of attendees.

Of the 210 substances tested, some of them were not drugs at all, he said. The ones that were proved to be largely MDMA and ketamine. About 14 drugs were thrown away.

One of the major concerns was the level of drug “substitution”, because users do not know what they have actually taken. A lot of drugs sold as MDMA in fact proved to be dimethylpentylone or the drug 2-fluoro-2-oxo-phenylcyclohexylethylamine, known as “Canberra ketamine”. The latter was discovered in the ACT’s groundbreaking pill testing clinic last year.

“[Dimethylpentylone] is one of those drugs that people might think that they’ve got MDMA, and redose and redose making it potentially considerably more hazardous,” Caldicott said.

“The subjective effects of people consuming them can be quite different.”

There were no high-risk drugs found. Caldicott said purity was highly variable.

Some people fronted up to the clinic who didn’t even have drugs, just to have a chat about their drug use, Caldicott said. He said the clinic was able to persuade many attendees to take more precautions while using drugs.

The Queensland health minister, Shannon Fentiman, said the trial was about harm reduction.

“In 2021, there were over 2,200 drug-related deaths in Australia, which is 2,200 too many. That is why this initiative is important,” she said. “The drug checking service provided health advice and harm reduction information to hundreds of festivalgoers this weekend, meaning that those who did decide to take drugs did so in a more informed way.”

The average age of patrons who visited the service at the festival was between 28 and 30 years old.

The service is free, voluntary and confidential, and is part of a state government trial.

A fixed-site pill-testing service is also set to open in Bowen Hill in Brisbane this month. The state government plans to open a second fixed site once the location has been determined through a co-design process.

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Queensland’s first festival pill-testing service finds ‘Canberra ketamine’ sold as MDMA

Rabbits Eat Lettuce festival, near Warwick, held Australia’s first multi-day festival clinic last weekend

  • Get our morning and afternoon news emails, free app or daily news podcast

The organisers of Queensland’s first festival pill-testing service say many drugs sold as MDMA turned out to be other substances including one recently dubbed “Canberra ketamine”.

The Rabbits Eat Lettuce festival, near Warwick, held the first multi-day festival clinic in Australia on the weekend, after two patrons died at the same event in 2019.

The Pill Testing Australia clinical lead David Caldicott said it was hard to know if the clinic saved lives in 2024, but pointed to the lack of a need for paramedics as a win for safety.

  • Sign up for Guardian Australia’s free morning and afternoon email newsletters for your daily news roundup

“We often see a lot of ambulance transports from festivals,” he said.

“You have to be quite naive to assume that people are going to this sort of event with the intention of behaving like members of a monastery. And frequently in Australia, sadly, tragically, we see people over-indulging and not using any restraint.”

According to data released by Queensland health on Wednesday, 257 festivalgoers used the testing clinic over the Easter long weekend.

Caldicott said that was equal to about 10% of attendees.

Of the 210 substances tested, some of them were not drugs at all, he said. The ones that were proved to be largely MDMA and ketamine. About 14 drugs were thrown away.

One of the major concerns was the level of drug “substitution”, because users do not know what they have actually taken. A lot of drugs sold as MDMA in fact proved to be dimethylpentylone or the drug 2-fluoro-2-oxo-phenylcyclohexylethylamine, known as “Canberra ketamine”. The latter was discovered in the ACT’s groundbreaking pill testing clinic last year.

“[Dimethylpentylone] is one of those drugs that people might think that they’ve got MDMA, and redose and redose making it potentially considerably more hazardous,” Caldicott said.

“The subjective effects of people consuming them can be quite different.”

There were no high-risk drugs found. Caldicott said purity was highly variable.

Some people fronted up to the clinic who didn’t even have drugs, just to have a chat about their drug use, Caldicott said. He said the clinic was able to persuade many attendees to take more precautions while using drugs.

The Queensland health minister, Shannon Fentiman, said the trial was about harm reduction.

“In 2021, there were over 2,200 drug-related deaths in Australia, which is 2,200 too many. That is why this initiative is important,” she said. “The drug checking service provided health advice and harm reduction information to hundreds of festivalgoers this weekend, meaning that those who did decide to take drugs did so in a more informed way.”

The average age of patrons who visited the service at the festival was between 28 and 30 years old.

The service is free, voluntary and confidential, and is part of a state government trial.

A fixed-site pill-testing service is also set to open in Bowen Hill in Brisbane this month. The state government plans to open a second fixed site once the location has been determined through a co-design process.

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‘Significant market concentration’: Australian farming lobby calls for poultry industry code of conduct

Producers have a ‘genuine fear’ of challenging unfair contracts due to a lack of competition, the National Farmers Federation says

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Australia’s peak farming body has accused chicken processors of “serious and deplorable” behaviour toward producers and called for a mandatory code of conduct, in a lengthy report on ways to increase market transparency and improve competition in the sector.

The National Farmers Federation report, released on Tuesday, said there was “significant market concentration” in the sector and identified a widespread misuse of market power by major chicken processors at the expense of producers.

Processors Inghams Enterprises and Baiada Poultry supply about 70% of Australia’s poultry meat. The remainder is owned by four other enterprises.

The NFF was funded to undertake the report by the federal agriculture department and specifically address whether a code of conduct should be introduced.

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The NFF chief executive, Tony Mahar, said current legislation is insufficient to address systemic power imbalances between producers and processors, and the report concluded that a mandatory code of conduct was the most effective tool to correct issues in the supply chain.

“We’ve seen several other agricultural industries go down a similar path and be revived by this type of intervention, the dairy industry is the perfect example,” he said.

“We look forward to receiving the government’s response to the report’s deeply concerning findings and strong recommendation.”

If adopted by the federal government, a mandatory code would return “confidence and fair trading in the supply chain,” Mahar said.

The report was commissioned after a 2020 Australian Competition and Consumer Commission inquiry raised concerns about how processor concentration was affecting the industry.

The poultry meat manager at the New South Wales Farmers Association, David Banham, interviewed more than 150 farmers as part of the NFF report.

“There is little to no choice in processors, growing contract terms are unfair, and there is a deliberate undermining of collective bargaining efforts within the supply chain,” he said.

The report found processors have favoured individual producer contracts to weaken state-based grower groups efforts to collectively negotiate prices.

Producers also reported a “genuine fear” of challenging unfair contracts, out of concern for commercial retribution. In situations where farmers had access to more than one poultry processor, they had almost no ability to compare price offerings.

Australians eat an average of 50kg of chicken a year, representing 45% of all meat consumed domestically.

But Banham said growers get the “end of a raw deal,” pocketing less than 6% of the retail price for a roast chicken.

The Australian Chicken Growers’ Council supports the call for a mandatory code. Acting chief executive, Joanne Sillince, said market conditions for poultry farmers have been in decline for decades.

“Imagine playing in the under 10s rugby team and having the A-grade men’s team coming at you with no rules, that’s what it’s like for farmers,” she said.

“If there’s a set of rules a referee can blow their whistle and call a time out … that doesn’t mean we’ll get a free kick, it doesn’t eliminate competition.”

The Australian Poultry Meat Association, the body that represents processors, declined to comment to Guardian Australia. In an earlier statement to the ABC, the association said it does not support a mandatory code of conduct. It said no leg of the supply chain controls the production and distribution of chicken meat at the loss of others.

The federal minister for agriculture, Murray Watt, said the NFF report would be “carefully considered by the government”.

“Farmers deserve a fair price for their hard work, which is why the Albanese government has initiated a number of inquiries aimed at improving transparency of pricing,” Watt said.

Sillince called on Watt to back the mandatory code. “How many farmers have to be lying in the street before Murray Watt’s office is going to commit to this?” she said.

Inghams Enterprises declined to comment. Baiada Poultry did not respond.

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From dance instructors to boilermakers: Labor says non-compete clauses are holding back wages

Andrew Leigh takes aim at ‘agreements between competitors’ not to poach workers, saying regulating the practice could lead to bigger pay rises

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Labor has accused franchise businesses of cartel-like behaviour for agreements not to poach each other’s employees, arguing fast-food workers could earn more if allowed to change jobs more easily.

The assistant minister for competition, Andrew Leigh, will give a major speech on Thursday arguing reforms aimed at preventing practices that stop workers changing jobs could help workers win bigger pay rises.

The government is launching an issues paper about regulating non-compete clauses, which restrict employees from working for employers in the same industry and location for a period of time.

Leigh says that in the US, UK and European Union “agreements between competitors” such as not to poach workers or to suppress their wages are “cartel behaviour, and illegal”, raising questions about whether they should be outlawed in Australia.

Non-compete clauses and no-poach agreements could prevent workers winning pay rises of $5,700 or more typically available when employees switch jobs.

In an advance copy of his speech to the McKell Institute, Leigh says that non-compete clauses are now affecting a diverse range of employees: from breakdancing instructors to disability support workers and boilermakers.

Leigh explains that non-compete clauses are intended to protect confidential information but are “the bluntest tool in the shed” for that job. International evidence suggests they are “harming job mobility, innovation and wages growth”, he says.

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Leigh says that non-compete clauses have become “commonplace”, with new Australian Bureau of Statistics data finding one in five Australian businesses use them for their employees.

Use “was not limited to upper‑level managers or executives but included all workers of varying incomes”, he says.

“Businesses with more than 1,000 employees were twice as likely (40%) to have employees with non‑compete clauses than those with fewer than 20 employees.

“Big, incumbent businesses can use non-compete clauses and other tools to maintain their market power and prevent their competitors from growing or new startups emerging.”

Leigh argues the clauses can have a “chilling” effect, “stopping workers from seeking out a better-paying job or from starting a new business”.

Leigh also takes aim at no-poach agreements, which he says “are often made in secret and verbally, so workers don’t know they are impacting on their wages and mobility”.

“In a no-poach scenario, two or more businesses agree to not solicit or hire each other’s current or former workers.”

Leigh says these agreements are common where employers compete for the same talent, such as in the US tech sector, or in other contexts including franchises in Australia.

“Major franchises such as McDonald’s, Bakers Delight and Domino’s have standard clauses that prevent franchisees from hiring workers in other stores.

“Exemptions for certain anti-competitive agreements may mean these no-poach agreements don’t fall foul of competition laws.”

The issues paper noted that while “cartels are prohibited” by competition law, there are exemptions, including agreements about “remuneration, conditions of employment, hours of work or working conditions of employees” and independent contractors.

“Consequently, even if two competitors agree to fix and suppress the wages and other conditions of their workers the [Australian Competition and Consumer Commission], unlike its international counterparts, may not be able to take enforcement action.”

The issues paper queried whether to remove the exemption so the “competition watchdog has power to address agreements between competitors that seek to suppress wages, but not agreements that seek to increase wages”.

It noted that evidence of the impact of no-poach and wage-fixing agreements on wages is “scarce … due to the secrecy of these arrangements”.

But in his speech, Leigh says that research from the e61 Institute had found that “job switching and the pay increases that come with it are worth $5,700 a year for typical workers”.

“It is worth even more for younger job switchers who can earn on average $7,500 more a year than job stayers.”

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Yorkshire woman wins discrimination case after boss called her ‘emotional and tearful’

Judge says male boss’s description of Nicola Hinds, who was pregnant, was ‘dismissive and belittling’

Describing a pregnant woman as “very emotional and tearful” in the workplace amounted to discrimination, a tribunal has ruled.

The ruling relates to an email sent by the boss of an account manager after she raised concerns about her workload.

Nicola Hinds, 37, resigned after returning to work after the birth of her child because of the way she was treated. She is in line to receive compensation from her employer, Mitie, an outsourcing company, after a judge upheld her claims of pregnancy discrimination and constructive dismissal.

Roger Tynan, an employment judge, said Hinds’s boss, Nav Kalley, had stereotyped her as “an emotional, hormonal pregnant woman and that in the particular circumstances his description of her as emotional and tearful was dismissive and belittling”.

“The inference was that she was not fully in control of her emotions because of the pregnancy and that she was making unreasonable demands as a result,” he said.

In April 2020, Hinds discovered she was pregnant and told her bosses. In October, however, she said she was struggling with her workload after suffering two panic attacks in a week.

The tribunal found bosses handled the complaint “ineptly”. Her male manager did not respond to her at all, instead emailing another colleague that Hinds had “become very emotional and tearful especially” and suggested she should go on unpaid leave.

An interview in June 2021 to discuss Hinds’ needs after returning from maternity leave was described as “inadequate”. She resigned in September 2021.

Hinds’ complaints of constructive dismissal and discrimination in relation to Kalley’s description of her and the handling of her complaint were upheld.

Judge Tynan said: “In our judgment [Mitie]’s cumulative treatment of [Ms Hinds] over the period following her return from maternity leave until September 2021 was of itself sufficiently serious as to be destructive of trust and confidence thereby entitling her to resign from her employment.

“We are satisfied that the failure to undertake a risk assessment, together with Mr Kalley’s inaction in October 2020 were material factors in her decision to resign.”

She will be awarded compensation at a later date.

Speaking afterwards, Hinds, from Doncaster, South Yorkshire, said: “My decision to go it alone was not just to rectify the unimaginable pain and suffering they had put me through, but also to give hope to all the other new and expectant mothers out there, to show them that you can do it without the hefty legal fees and with the right support.

“After 12 years of hard work and dedication, I left my career a broken woman, stripped of all my confidence.”

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