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Minister to act if staff at fault in e-mail affair

June 7, 2002 

Health Minister Kay Patterson has vowed to take action against any staff found to have acted improperly in giving former health minister Michael Wooldridge government computer access after he resigned from politics.

Prime Minister John Howard sought yesterday to hose down the furore, saying he did not believe, on the evidence so far, that Dr Wooldridge had seen any sensitive material.

Meanwhile, the Opposition has called for a full prime ministerial inquiry to see whether Dr Wooldridge broke the law.

A spokesman for Senator Patterson said she would not comment on the fate of two of Dr Wooldridge's former departmental liaison officers, now working for her, who requested his computer log-on be reinstated on two separate occasions after he left government.

But the spokesman said she had been "very, very, very, very surprised" that the senior officer had reinstated e-mail access on January 17 after a direct order by Senator Patterson on January 15 that Dr Wooldridge be cut off.

Senator Patterson was awaiting a full investigation by the Department of Health's internal audit branch before acting.

The inquiry is expected to take several weeks.

Dr Wooldridge denied yesterday having had any improper access to government material during the three months in which he used his ministerial e-mail account more than 150 times while working as a health lobbyist.

He told ABC radio he had access only to old e-mails and was able to send and receive e-mails through his ministerial log-on that were sent to "Michael Wooldridge, private citizen".

He said he had been advised the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet had sanctioned his e-mail use. "I inquired and was told by a departmental officer that it was entirely proper. It was just helping me with job transition. Didn't cost the taxpayer a cent, didn't give me access to current government documents or files."

He denied he was able to access departmental e-mails or had viewed any material relating to a Federal Government grant of $5 million to the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners an organisation for which he was working as a consultant. The grant has since been revoked.

Dr Wooldridge said he had asked for his computer access to be reinstated after it was cut off by Senator Patterson on January 15 because he had been given an undertaking by the Department of Health that he would be given a week's notice before he was cut off.

His access was not cut off again until March 13.

Mr Howard said Dr Wooldridge would probably not have been able to see anything he hadn't already seen as minister.

"I am going to seek some information about it and check it out but I don't think it should automatically be assumed that once you stop being a minister that you're not entitled to refresh your memory about something that you were involved in or was shown to you," he said.

"There is not automatically anything wrong with a minister's recollection being refreshed in relation to material formerly before him. Now, the question of whether it went beyond that, I just don't know."

Opposition Leader Simon Crean described the situation as outrageous. "We have got now, evidence that two days after he finished as a minister he took up as a consultant for the health industry and continued to access government information," he said. "On the face of it he could be in breach of the law."

By EMMA MACDONALD, Copyright © 2002 by Rural Press Ltd

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