Levitt case draws in legal chief

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The Independent Online

Political Correspondent

Sir Derek Spencer, the Solicitor General, has been drawn into the growing row over the Government's refusal to admit that the Serious Fraud Office authorised a deal with lawyers defending Roger Levitt, the failed investment adviser.

Levitt, facing a jail sentence on fraud charges, walked free from court in 1993 after pleading guilty to a minor charge. George Staple, the director of the SFO, is to re-appear before the Treasury Select Committee of MPs next month to explain why he "did not recall" that he had discussed possible pleas by Levitt with prosecuting counsel David Cocks QC soon after the trial began.

At the time of the case, Sir Nicholas Lyell, the Attorney-General, denied that the SFO had authorised a plea bargain. Now, in answer to questions from the Labour MP, Mike O'Brien, he said his denial was "cleared by the Solicitor General", who later investigated claims that the denial was misleading.

The Solicitor General is a Queen's Counsel - a leading barrister - in the chambers of Mr Cocks, the SFO's barrister in the Levitt case. Mr O'Brien said last night: "This does raise questions about whether there was a conflict of interest. It does seem on the face of it inappropriate that the Solicitor General should be the person who investigates on behalf of the law officers whether the case was handled properly."

The Treasury Select Committee is taking evidence from the lawyers on both sides of the case before hearing "revised" evidence from Mr Staple on 11 July. The latest parliamentary answers from the Attorney General abandon all previous insistence that there was no plea bargain. He said Mr Cocks had been approached by defence lawyers "and asked whether the Crown would be prepared to accept" a lesser plea from Levitt three days before Mr Cocks discussed with Mr Staple what the SFO's attitude was.