SFO accused of lying over Levitt case

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The Independent Online
JOHN EISENHAMMER

Financial Editor

The Serious Fraud Office lied to Parliament in an attempt to cover up its bungled prosecution of the Levitt fraud trial, MPs said during a tense Commons select committee meeting yesterday.

George Staple, director of the SFO, was visibly shaken as he left a two- hour grilling by the Treasury and Civil Service committee, during which MPs called for his resignation.

"I think Mr Staple ought to be considering his position; there are serious issues of public concern at stake here," said the Labour MP Mike O'Brien, who called for an independent judicial inquiry into the affair.

"I charge here that the prosecution of the Levitt case was bungled by the SFO and its counsel. Referring to all the evidence before the committee, I charge that you attempted to disguise this, and that Parliament was misled on two important counts: namely that the SFO made no suggestions of plea bargaining, and that the Crown knew nothing about Levitt only pleading guilty to a charge which did not involve going to prison."

An SFO source said last night that Mr Staple did not thgink he had done anything to warrant resigning. Mr Staple earlier told the committee that the charges were "outrageous". He had been recalled by the committee after apologising for giving MPs incorrect answers in his earlier statements on the SFO's role in the Roger Levitt trial.

Having originally faced 62 charges of theft, fraud and deception, and allegedly misappropriated pounds 59m, Levitt's sentence in November 1993 to 180 hours of community service unleashed a storm of protest and speculation about secret deals.

The SFO, Sir Nicholas Lyell, the Attorney General, and David Cocks QC, leading counsel for the prosecution, all denied deals had been done, and expressed surprise at the lenience of the sentence.

The committee had received detailed accounts from all the lawyers involved in the Levitt case, including damning allegations of mishandling of the prosecution. MPs confronted Mr Staple with detailed accounts from six defence lawyers claiming the Crown had been engaged in persistent plea offers in the closing weeks of the case, and the prosecution knew full well Levitt finally agreed to plead guilty to a minor charge only on condition he did not go to prison.

MPs said an answer to Parliament on 9 December 1993 by the Attorney General stating that no suggestions of deals had been made by the Crown was misleading, and that evidence from both defence and prosecution lawyers showed the Crown had suggested pleas. "I am quite confident suggestions were made by the Crown and you are wrong," Mr O'Brien told Mr Staples. The SFO director denied this, and said Parliament had not been misled.

Reading from the submitted evidence of Mr Cocks, MPs said that a discussion by prosecuting counsel on 9 November amounted to a suggestion of a deal. "I agree there is a range of possibilities that there were suggestions, but we have always taken the view that it was all about counsel-to-counsel confidential discussions, and that all the prosecution did was respond to suggestions made by the defence," said Mr Staple.

Evidence to the committee by Howard Godfrey, counsel for one of Levitt's co-defendants, showed the Crown involved in plea bargaining since May 1993, becoming clear and persistent offers from 1 November. "I can confirm that from early November 1993 the prosecution appeared keen to accept reduced pleas and to 'carve' the case," wrote Brian Lett, a defence solicitor, in evidence.

Mr Staple admitted that at a crucial meeting on 5 November at the SFO's office he told prosecution lawyers that he was "minded to accept" reduced pleas being discussed. But he denied this amounted to an instruction. "You are quibbling over words," said Diane Abbott, Labour MP. "If an ordinary member of the public had been there, they would have come away with the clear impression you would accept the pleas."

Asked who wrote the allegedly misleading answers to Parliament of 9 December 1993, Mr Staple said: "The answers were granted, and cleared, I regret not by me, but by Mr Cocks."

The Tory MP Quentin Davies replied: "The facts that have now emerged are that Mr Cocks misled the SFO, the SFO then misled the Attorney General, and the Attorney General in turn inadvertently misled Parliament. That is an extremely regrettable state of affairs."

The committee will meet again on Monday.

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