SFO chief's job on line over Levitt deal

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The Independent Online
JOHN EISENHAMMER

and JOHN RENTOUL

The future of George Staple, director of the Serious Fraud Office, was in doubt yesterday as Sir Nicholas Lyell, the Attorney General, substantially modified his denial that the SFO struck a plea bargain with Roger Levitt, the investment adviser whose unexpectedly lenient sentence in 1993 for misleading City authorities provoked a national outcry.

Sir Nicholas has been forced to amend previous statements after the Independent's revelations two weeks ago that he had misled Parliament by denying that the SFO's lawyers struck a deal with Mr Levitt's lawyers. Mr Levitt, originally charged with fraud on 62 counts and facing a possible seven-year jail sentence, was sentenced to 180 hours' community service after pleading guilty to one minor charge.

In a parliamentary answer released late on Thursday night, Sir Nicholas admitted that there had been official authorisation for the plea bargaining. His amended version contradicted evidence given by Mr Staple to the Treasury select committee on Monday this week, when he denied knowledge of the plea bargaining until the final deal was struck on 22 November 1993.

Mike O'Brien, a Labour member of the committee which interviewed Mr Staple, said he has asked the committee to recall Mr Staple urgently. "Someone is going to have to answer some extremely serious questions, for this is clearly a case where Staple has given us evidence which is not true," he said. Mr O'Brien will table further questions to Sir Nicholas on Monday, demanding that he explain why his earlier statements failed to show "the level of candour that MPs have a right to expect".

In his latest answer, Sir Nicholas admits the SFO's lawyers stated in early November to Mr Levitt's lawyers "what the Crown's attitude was likely to be if Mr Levitt tendered particular pleas". On Monday, Mr Staple told MPs he had "not taken part" in these discussions.

Sir Nicholas now says that Mr Staple, who had the authority to settle the case, has subsequently "recalled" that he met the prosecuting barrister, David Cocks QC, on 5 November 1993, and "was informed of possible pleas which leading counsel for the Crown advised should, in the event that they were tendered, be accepted". He also said Mr Staple was minded to accept these pleas. Mr Cocks and Mr Staple advised the Attorney General on his answers to Parliament in December 1993, in which he denied Crown involvement in plea offers, and that it had any idea that Mr Levitt would get off with such a light sentence.

Now the Attorney General has also admitted that the final plea agreed did not involve Mr Levitt having to admit to having obtained any money by deception.

John Perry, solicitor to Mr Levitt, said: "It is good to see this sudden improvement in Mr Staple's memory of the offers his QC, David Cocks, was making to our QC, Jonathan Goldberg, several weeks before the trial began. However, the full truth is still not being admitted, which is that we spelt out in the clearest of terms that Levitt would not do the deal if he had to serve so much as an hour in prison, and with that knowledge they went into the judge's room and did the deal."

The SFO refused to comment.

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