Staple's unstable future

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The Independent Online
Staple's unstable future

I BEGAN to wonder about George Staple's judgement when he recently declared that the amount of monitoring of financial businesses these days made it "almost impossible" to commit fraud. Bizarre, from the head of the Serious Fraud Office. He insists he was quoted out of context and I was happy to give him the benefit of the doubt. But anyone following his progress with the Treasury Select Committee over the last fortnight would have fresh reason to wonder.

Last week he apologised to the committee after misleading it over its inquiries into the SFO's handling of the case of Roger Levitt. The case, you'll recall, provoked a national outcry when the fraudster escaped being sent to prison and was sentenced to 180 hours of community service. The committee is investigating allegations that Staple authorised a plea bargain for Levitt which made it most unlikely he would be jailed.

Staple was warned ahead of his appearance that he would be questioned over the Levitt case. Yet he appeared vague, bumbling and under-briefed - to the extent of failing to recall a key meeting with the prosecution QC. He was like a schoolboy summoned to the headmaster to explain his absence from assembly who isn't ready with any kind of explanation.

The SFO's reputation remains at rock-bottom. This is despite the occasional coup - on Friday it saw the Merseyside businessman Neil Bradshaw jailed for six years on charges of theft relating to Consolidated Sterling Deposits.

The Levitt saga is far from over. The select committee is now taking evidence from the lawyers in the case, many of whom are hostile to the SFO. Staple faces a further grilling next month. Meanwhile one MP on the committee has tabled 16 probing questions on the case to the Attorney General. It promises to be a hairy summer for Staple.