A 66-year old New Zealand man has confessed to using a stolen identity and falsified credentials to pursue a lengthy and prolific engineering career in both Australia and his country of origin, raising grave concerns about the safety of the many projects in which he participated.
Gerald Shirtcliff, currently a resident of Victoria Point, appeared before the Queensland Magistrates Court on June 12 to plead guilty to 146 charges related to the performance of engineering work using counterfeit qualifications.
These charges included making "false and misleading" statements to the Board of Professional Engineers of Queensland (BPEQ), as well as performing engineering work without being a registered professional.
Shirtcliff's confession has raised serious concerns about the safety and quality of the engineering projects he worked on using falsified credentials, particularly given how numerous they were within the Queensland mining sector.
While in Queensland Shirtcliff managed to obtain employment with leading engineering firms such as Worley Parsons and Sedgman Limited, working on a slew of major coal mining projects in the state, including Maules Creek, Cordilla, Boggabri, Lake Vermont and Caval Ridge.
Shirtcliff also served as supervisor for the construction of the CTV building in Christchurch, which collapsed during the February 2011 earthquake causing the deaths of 115 people. The counterfeit engineer was included in the New Zealand Royal Commission into the Christchurch earthquake due to his prominent role in the project, and was investigated by New Zealand police for use of a stolen identity.
The Queensland Magistrates Court has established that Shirtcliff's history of counterfeiting qualifications and credentials extends back for more than four decades.
Shirtcliff's fraudulent career began in 1969, when he stole the university degree of his then flatmate and colleague, English engineer William Fisher, during a work stint in Africa.
In 1973 Shirtcliff successfully applied to a masters program at the University of New South Wales using the stolen document, and in March 2000 commenced a career as a registered engineer in Queensland using Fisher's identity.
In a written affidavit Fisher said that he had shared a flat with Shirtcliff for just six months in 1969, while they were colleagues for engineering firm Van Niekirk, Kleyn and Edward in Pretoria, but that he hadn't seen him since then.
Fisher said that despite the 44-year hiatus in contact, he still recognised Shirtcliff's photograph on the application form to become a Registered Professional Engineer of Queensland.
Engineers Australia cancelled Shirtcliff's registration in 2012 after BPAQ launched an investigation prompted by media reports concerning his role as supervisor for the CTV building. UNSW revoked his Master of Engineering Science in Highway Engineering in November of the same year.
A joint statement of facts agreed upon by both Shirtcliff and BPAQ which was submitted to the Magistrates Court called his offences "the most serious kind that one may contemplate against the (Professional Engineers Act Queensland)."
"This is because Shirtcliff - not being registered as an RPEQ and in circumstances where he took on an engineering degree awarded to someone else and then sought to adopt that person's name in purporting to seek registration - carried out significant and compacted professional engineering services as a senior civil engineer with respect to large coal projects, mining projects, and civil infrastructure projects," said the joint statement.
"Any deficiency in the engineering calculations, design and data with respect to this work could have had very serious consequences in terms of injury to persons, damage to property and/or with respect to the success of the engineering projects."
Despite the gravity and extent of Shirtcliff's fraudulent conduct, he still walked away from the Queensland Magistrates Court a free man, while incurring a fine of $500,000 as well as an order to pay $20,000 in professional costs.
BPEQ said that it had already increased the requirements for registration of professional engineers in the state in order to prevent similar cases from occurring in future. Since 2008 the board has required that engineers have their qualifications inspected by an approved assessment body prior to providing registration.