More prosecutorial abuse

And there is no effective recourse against it. A rogue Federal prosecutor made a public announcement that ruined the lives of an innocent couple but because he interlarded everything he said with the word "allegedly" he could not be legally faulted

In the space of a few days, the couple's home was raided and they were arrested by police, close friends turned on them, and they were subjected to a barrage of vile and racist abuse from strangers.

While the online trolling came as a shock, the most frightening incident was when Mr Shehada checked his letterbox and found a Christmas card with human faeces inside.

"I was still outside the front door of my property … I found myself on my knees and I vomited," he said.

The public pile-on came after newspaper stories and a press conference organised by the Australian Federal Police (AFP), where journalists were told about childcare educators who had been charged over an alleged fraud in excess of $15 million.

Police said those involved registered fake kids — or so-called phantom children — to trick the Commonwealth into paying out large subsidies.

"This is money that belongs in the hands of our community to help care for some of our most vulnerable persons," Commander Todd Hunter told journalists on November 28, 2020.

"We allege that out of greed it has instead been used to foot the bill for extensive real estate portfolios, overseas travel and other luxury items."

The couple's faces were plastered all over the television news that night, including on the ABC. Stories showed photos of Ms Ouda sitting on a motorbike and posing in front of a Maserati.

During the press conference, Mr Hunter never explicitly said the couple were guilty of criminal offences. The veteran officer used the words "allege", "alleged" and "allegation" 15 times in his opening seven-minute address to the cameras.

Mr Hunter did not specifically name Ms Ouda and Mr Shehada either, instead saying that the "alleged syndicate leader" was a 42-year-old woman who owned a "large Victorian family day care provider". Mr Hunter also claimed a restaurant owned by the couple was allegedly being used to rort COVID-19 JobKeeper payments.

Behind the scenes, the AFP sent Ms Ouda and Mr Shehada's surnames to the media so that the details could be used to track their future court hearings.

'We did absolutely nothing wrong'

Ten months later, the AFP quietly dropped the charges against Ms Ouda and Mr Shehada.

This month, Mr Shehada told the Victorian Supreme Court the couple "knew from day one we did absolutely nothing wrong". He said he was never told why the case was discontinued by the AFP.

"Our lives were destroyed by this press conference," added Ms Ouda. "We were defamed, the entire community was turned on us and there was absolutely no foundation."

This week, the ABC also sent questions to the AFP, inquiring why the case against the pair had been abandoned. "The AFP has no comment," a spokesperson said.

Ms Ouda and Mr Shehada's frustrations were amplified because the AFP did not contact the media companies to provide the important update that the charges had been dropped. Through their lawyers, the couple sent letters to the publications asking them to take down the original stories.

By early 2023, they had commenced a new legal battle. This time it wasn't the AFP coming after Ms Ouda and Mr Shehada — the pair were seeking to turn the tables and were now suing former commander Todd Hunter and the Commonwealth for defamation, seeking a payout for damages.

Commander grilled on the stand

This month, a Supreme Court civil jury was asked to determine whether Mr Hunter's words at the press conference conveyed seven specific meanings to an "ordinary reasonable person".

The defamation lawsuit came down to a relatively simple question. From Mr Hunter's public comments alone, could a reasonable person conclude that Ms Ouda and Mr Shehada were dishonest and stole from taxpayers?

Mr Hunter, who has since retired from the AFP, rejected that suggestion. He told the jury the press conference was held to highlight the work of police, to "allay any fears" people may have had from seeing homes being raided, and to call for additional information to assist the fraud investigation.

David Gilbertson KC, acting for the couple, put a different theory to Mr Hunter. "You were by nods and winks inviting members of the media who attended the press conference to find out the names of Ola Ouda and Amjad Shehada, isn't that right?" he asked.

"I don't believe I nodded or winked at anybody," Mr Hunter replied.

Mr Hunter — whose policing career included overseas postings and coordinating major operations over four decades — was asked whether he used the press conference "to go out from the AFP on a high note".

"No," he replied flatly.

If the jury believed Mr Hunter had defamed the couple, his lawyers said they would rely on a legal defence known as qualified privilege. If required, they would argue that the press conference was an occasion where Mr Hunter was entitled to a degree of protection to speak openly, provided he was not acting with malice.

Negative publicity leaves couple 'scarred for life'

In court, Mr Shehada and Ms Ouda described the public humiliation that followed the AFP's press conference.

Mr Shehada's best friend scolded him on social media, and others made sexually-explicit comments about Ms Ouda. Their kids were bullied at school. Negative reviews were posted on Google about their Lebanese restaurant, which they later sold for a loss. Even their bank accounts were closed by ANZ and Westpac.

Mr Shehada said Ms Ouda's approval to run a childcare business was cancelled and had not been reinstated. The negative publicity meant both were still struggling to find work, he said.

During a tense cross-examination by Mr Hunter's lawyer Lisa De Ferrari SC, Ms Ouda said the ordeal had left her "scarred for life".

"We were defamed, the defamation was intentional, the defamation destroyed my life, our lives, our businesses, and that's it," she said.

When the jury retired to consider their decision, Ms Ouda and Mr Shehada stood in the sun-drenched courtyard of the historic Supreme Court precinct to ponder their futures.

A win might have resulted in a multi-million dollar payout for the couple, and potentially had a major impact on how police conducted public relations and their dealings with the media in future. A loss for Ms Ouda and Mr Shehada would pile on more misery from the previous two-and-a-half years.

At one point, Ms Ouda burst into tears and was hugged by her partner, who also broke down.

A question of meaning

On Tuesday afternoon, they were soon back in the courtroom. A verdict was in, perhaps quicker than had been anticipated.

Seven key questions were put to the jury foreperson.

Could a reasonable person conclude that Mr Hunter had identified Ms Ouda and Mr Shehada at the press conference, and made out that they were guilty of a childcare fraud? Had he outed them as criminal syndicate leaders? Did he convey that they registered phantom children and falsely claimed benefits? That they stole from taxpayers? That they committed fraud and lived a life of luxury? That their restaurant was used for further frauds? And finally, that Ola Ouda and Amjad Shehada were dishonest and unable to be trusted?

To each query, the jury's answer was "no".

It meant Ms Ouda and Mr Shehada's bid to take down Mr Hunter and the Commonwealth had fallen at the first hurdle.

The couple appeared crestfallen as they learned the defamation case would be dismissed and there would be no payment for damages. Worse still, having lost the case, Ms Ouda and Mr Shehada were ordered to pay the legal costs for the defendants.

Despite the outcome, Ms Ouda and Mr Shehada strode out of the Supreme Court defiantly, hand-in-hand.

This time, they weren't in the headlines. The story failed to make the nightly news.


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