Fraud office chief faces grilling from MPs over Levitt affair

John Eisenhammer reports on an inquiry into claims that Parliament was misled about fraud trial `deal'
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The Independent Online
George Staple, director of the Serious Fraud Office, will today be fighting for his job when he goes before MPs in the wake of allegations that Parliament was systematically misled over the Levitt affair.

In an unusual move, Mr Staple has been recalled before the Treasury and Civil Service select committee after apologising that his earlier evidence did not correspond to actual events in late 1993 when Roger Levitt, the failed investment adviser, walked free from a high-profile fraud trial. In contrast to firm denials at the time, both Mr Staple and Sir Nicholas Lyell, the Attorney General, have now conceded that plea bargaining involving the Crown did go on in the crucial few weeks before Mr Levitt received his unexpectedly lenient sentence.

Having originally faced 62 charges of theft, fraud and deception, and alleged to have misappropriated pounds 59m, Levitt's eventual sentence of 180 hours' community service provoked a national outcry, and speculation about secret deals.

Members of the committee are concerned that the strength of public outrage at the time may have prompted a concerted attempt to cover up the extent of the Crown's involvement in plea bargaining, and the fact that the deal ultimately struck made it most unlikely Levitt would go to jail.

In an attempt to get to the bottom of the affair, MPs have called for written submissions from the senior lawyers, both for the SFO and for Roger Levitt and his three co-defendants.

It is believed that detailed documentation from defence QCs shows that plea bargaining went on regularly from as early as May 1993, and that firm and persistent offers were made by the Crown from 1 November 1993 in the final weeks.

In his correction of his early evidence, Mr Staple wrote to the committee on 19 January 1995: "It is now clear that I, together with the case controller, had a meeting with prosecuting counsel on 5 November (1993). As the Attorney has said in his answer, the joint recollection of all present is that I was then informed of possible pleas which leading counsel for the Crown advised should, in the event that they were tendered, be accepted."

In particular, the defence QCs are believed to argue that the prosecution of the Levitt trial was seriously mismanaged by the Crown counsel, David Cocks, weakening an initially formidable case by the SFO to such an extent that Levitt could eventually only be convicted on a very minor charge.

In a letter of 19 December 1993, recording shortly after the trial his recollection of events, Howard Godfrey, QC for one of Levitt's co-defendants, wrote: "I fear that this Cocks'-induced rumpus has been designed to cover up his own lack of preparation or enthusiasm for this trial." This 1993 letter is believed to be typical of the new evidence presented to the select committee by all the defence lawyers in the case. Mr Godfrey criticised Mr Cocks' failure to appeal against the ruling of May 1993 by Mr Justice Laws, which truncated the most damaging evidence the Crown had wished to call against Levitt. He also refers to a conversation he had with Mr Cocks in the robing room immediately following a preparatory hearing in May 1993 in which Mr Cocks told Mr Godfrey he could not do the Levitt case if it were moved to January 1994 instead of the anticipated start date of autumn 1993. "He did not say why, but I naturally wondered if he had already accepted another brief or if perhaps he had even accepted an appointment."

Other QCs wrote of ever increasingly generous offers by Mr Cocks and his juniors from 1 November onwards in an attempt to crack the Levitt case.

Attention at today's committee meeting is also expected to focus on the role played in the Levitt affair by Sir Derek Spencer, the Solicitor General. He chaired crucial meetings at which the earlier allegedly misleading answers to Parliament were drafted together with the SFO and Mr Cocks. Sir Derek is the second senior lawyer in the chambers headed by David Cocks, of 5 Kings Bench Walk.

In his earlier answer to Parliament on 9 December 1993, at the height of the public outcry over Levitt walking free, Sir Nicholas Lyell denied that the SFO had been involved in plea bargaining. Following new questions in the House and the attention of the Treasury select committee, prompted by reports in the Independent, Sir Nicholas gave Parliament on 28 June 1995 a detailed account of meetings between prosecution and defence barristers at which relatively minor pleas were discussed, and which Mr Staple was "minded to accept if tendered".