MPs recall Staple over Levitt 'error'

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The Independent Online
JOHN RENTOUL and

JOHN EISENHAMMER

George Staple, director of the Serious Fraud Office, has apologised to MPs for giving them inaccurate answers last week about the Levitt fraud trial. The Treasury Select Committee decided yesterday to recall him to give revised evidence, citing the matter as one of urgent public interest.

The committee is investigating allegations that Mr Staple authorised a plea bargain which left Roger Levitt pleading guilty to just one, minor, charge which made it most unlikely he would face a prison sentence.

In the event, Levitt, whose investment company crashed under pounds 34m of debts, and who initially faced 62 charges of fraudulent trading and theft, got off with 180 hours community service instead of the seven to 10 years in jail his defence had initially feared. The lenient sentence in 1993 provoked a national outcry.

In a letter to the committee, Mr Staple says that, since giving evidence on Monday last week, he has checked his diary and spoken to the SFO's lawyer in the case, David Cocks QC, and recalls that he met Mr Cocks early on in the case. "I apologise that I was unable to recall that meeting in my evidence," he says. He accepts that, at that meeting, he told Mr Cocks that he was "minded" to accept lesser pleas from Levitt. And he accepts that, since Mr Cocks spoke to Levitt's lawyer, Jonathan Goldberg QC, later that day, 5 November 1993, Mr Goldberg could have gained the impression that a deal was authorised at a "higher level".

Last week, Mr Staple denied that the reference to a "higher level" in a letter to Levitt from his senior solicitor was to himself. Now Mr Staple accepts this reference "was apparently to me".

"I find Staple's letter quite extraordinary in the light of the press revelations before the committee hearing and the fact that the committee clerk advised him the Levitt issue would be raised. The fact that he failed to be briefed on key matters of how much he knew and when he knew it leaves some very serious questions to be answered," said Mike O'Brien, Labour MP for Warwickshire North and member of the committee.

Meeting in private yesterday, the Treasury Select Committee decided to recall Mr Staple to give further evidence on 11 July. Before then, the committee will request written evidence from all the lawyers involved in the Levitt case, including Mr Cocks, Crown counsel, and Jonathan Goldberg QC, who acted for Levitt.

They will reply to a series of questions about whether answers on the Levitt case provided to Parliament by Sir Nicholas Lyell, the Attorney General, gave a true reflection of what happened in the weeks leading up to the final plea bargain being struck.

The committee's questioning of Mr Staple has been prompted by revelations in the Independent about the plea bargaining between the Crown and Levitt's lawyers, and allegations that the Crown lawyers knew that Levitt would only accept a deal which did not imply him going to prison.

Mr O'Brien last night tabled 10 questions in the House of Commons asking the Attorney General to clarify his previous answers on the Levitt case, notably on who supplied him with the information for these answers and whether he regarded this information as providing a true and accurate version of events.

John Marshall, Conservative MP for Hendon South, who is not a member of the committee but who has followed the case because he was outraged by Levitt's lenient sentence, said: "This latest fiasco casts further doubt on the future of the Serious Fraud Office and the future of those in charge of it."

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