Deal in Levitt fraud trial 'hidden from MPs'

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The Independent Online

Financial Editor

The Attorney General, Serious Fraud Office and counsel for the Crown were all involved in a concerted attempt to hide from Parliament the fact that a plea bargain was struck in the Levitt fraud trial, MPs said yesterday.

In a heated session of the Commons Treasury and Civil Service Committee, George Staple, director of the SFO, was accused of supplying answers to Parliament calculated to mislead.

David Cocks QC, senior Crown counsel in the 1993 fraud trial of Roger Levitt, the investment adviser whose lenient sentence provoked an outcry, was described by a Labour MP as a "pathological liar" for his public statements of surprise at the outcome of the trial.

Another Labour MP, Mike O'Brien, said that the answers given to Parliament in December 1993 by Sir Nicholas Lyell, the Attorney General, about whether plea bargaining had taken place, and whether the SFO had been aware of the likelihood of a non-custodial sentence, were " calculated to mislead". The answers were provided by the SFO and cleared by Mr Cocks.

The two Labour MPs had been given detailed documentary evidence from the defence team in the Levitt case, first reported in the Independent, that there had been substantial plea bargaining with the Crown and that the Crown was aware that Levitt would only accept a deal which kept him out of prison.

At the outset of the trial, his defence team was convinced that he could receive 7 to 10 years in jail. In the event, Levitt received 180 hours' community service after pleading guilty to the much lesser charge of misleading the City watchdog, Fimbra.

Mr Staple told the committee: "Mr Cocks certainly had no authority from us to encourage a deal. As counsel for the Crown he had authority to discuss matters in a general way but he did not have specific authority from me or the SFO to enter into these discussions on specific matters.

"Counsel are entitled to discuss what they like but they certainly did not do it with my authority or on behalf of the Crown."

On the evidence of these defence documents , MPs suggested to Mr Staple that it was clear during the plea negotiations that Levitt would not accept any deal that involved him going to prison. After public uproar at the leniency of the sentence, Mr Cocks went on television twice to express surprise at the outcome of the trial.

"It is clear on the face of it that Mr Cocks is a pathological liar, he knew there would be a non-custodial sentence," said Brian Sedgemore, Labour MP for Hackney South.

Asked about Mr Cocks's public behaviour after the outcome of the trial, Mr Staple described it as "not satisfactory". But he added: "What Cocks said on television is beyond any control that I have."

Mr Staple distanced himself from a strong attack by Mr Cocks on the judge in the Levitt trial, Mr Justice Laws, in a newspaper article. "I have my own view on whether the outcome of the trial was appropriate but I do not attack the judge in any sense at all," Mr Staple said.

Asked whether the answers prepared for the Attorney General in Parliament were misleading, Mr Staple said: "There was no intent to mislead nor do I believe there was anything misleading."

Asked again about the detailed discussions between the defence and Crown counsels, Mr Staple said: "The questions put to Parliament did not call for a detailed answer."