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Australian police launch formal probe into speaker

Australian police launch formal probe into speaker

Australian police said Wednesday that they have launched an official investigation into fraud allegations against the speaker of Parliament, in a case that could have ramifications on the government's grip on power.
Police said they've launched a formal investigation into allegations that House of Representatives Speaker Peter Slipper misused taxi payment vouchers. Police had been evaluating the allegations since last month.
The announcement came a week after Slipper claimed to have been exonerated of the allegations by copies of the taxi payment vouchers released by a government department.
A fraud conviction could cost Slipper his seat in Parliament and the government of Prime Minister Julia Gillard its slender majority.
Slipper's former media adviser James Ashby alleges he saw his then-boss hand several taxi payment vouchers that were signed but otherwise blank to a limousine driver in Sydney on three occasions in January and February.
Ashby made the fraud allegations in a civil suit lodged in the Federal Court on April 20 that also accused Slipper of sexual harassment by pressuring Ashby to have gay sex with him.
Australian Federal Police said in a statement Wednesday that police had been evaluating whether the fraud allegations warranted a formal investigation since April 21 _ the first day that they were reported in newspapers around Australia.
"The AFP has now assessed that the matter requires further investigation," the statement said.
Slipper, who has denied both the criminal and civil allegations, obtained copies of the vouchers referred to by Ashby from the Finance Department, which routinely audits such payment records.
Slipper said last week that the documents showed that the vouchers were filled out completely _ including the amounts charged to the government for his travel _ in his own handwriting.
"The so-called criminal allegation is a complete fabrication, just as the other claims are not accurate," Slipper said in a statement last week as he released the voucher copies to the media. Senior government minister Anthony Albanese agreed that the vouchers proved "that allegation is not correct."
While a fraud conviction could cost Slipper his parliamentary seat, legal experts agree that he would likely be able to remain in Parliament until all avenues for appeal were exhausted. Whether a lawmaker can remain in Parliament while a criminal conviction is under appeal has never been tested in the 111-year history of Australia's constitution.
Such an appeal process would unlikely be concluded before elections are due by late next year.
If Slipper lost his seat, he would almost certainly be replaced by a conservative lawmaker in a by-election. Slipper was a member of the conservative opposition before he defected to accept the prestigious 324,000 Australian dollar ($426,000) -a-year speaker's job.
That would create the potential for the opposition to win a no-confidence motion against the center-left Labor Party government by 75 votes to 74. While Gillard has the support of 75 lawmakers in the 150-seat chamber, one of those would be the acting speaker, who could vote only to break a tie.