Ashdown's solicitor tells of 'weird pseudo-burglaries'

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The Independent Online
THE THEFT of a document outlining Paddy Ashdown's affair with his former secretary was followed by two other 'extremely fishy' break-ins at the offices of the Liberal Democrat leader's solicitors, the Old Bailey was told yesterday.

Andrew Phillips, senior partner in the firm of Bates, Wells and Braithwaite, said it was like someone was playing a game with him in the run-up to the general election.

The first theft came after Mr Ashdown had sought Mr Phillips's advice on 31 May 1990 about his brief relationship with Patricia Howard. Mr Phillips had his recollections of the main points of the conversation typed up and placed in the most secure safe in the cellar of his office.

The paper was stolen in the second weekend of January this year. A photocopy was offered for sale to the News of World on the Monday.

The prosecution alleges that the papers were taken by Simon Berkowitz, 45, a painter and decorator, from Hove, East Sussex. He denies burgling the offices and handling the stolen original of the document. He has, police allege, admitted showing a photocopy of the document to the News of the World.

Rumours about the contents of the stolen paper spread, and Mr Ashdown was forced just before the election publicly to admit that he once had an affair with Mrs Howard.

Mr Phillips said the firm's offices in the City of London had never been burgled before January. Three weeks after the theft of the aide memoire, on 6 February, the building was broken into again. There was a further break-in during the election campaign.

On both occasions, drawers were opened and papers tampered with, but no documents were taken. 'It was extremely fishy,' Mr Phillips said. 'It looked as if someone had tried to create an impression of a burglary. Things were turned upside down. It was weird. It seemed like a pseudo-burglary . . . as if someone was playing a game.' He said solicitors' offices were common targets for thieves looking for money, but he had never, in 28 years as a solicitor, heard of a document being stolen.

Very few people inside the firm knew that Mr Ashdown was his client, he said. On 31 May 1990, he had given a tape of his recollections of the meeting to his secretary. She typed up the notes, wiped the tape, and made no copies of the notes. Mr Phillips's name, not Mr Ashdown's, was put on the envelope containing the notes, and it was marked 'personal and confidential'. No record of the document was made in the office ledgers. Only Mr Phillips's secretary noted its existence in a private file.

Mr Phillips said he took unprecedented precautions because he was 'aware of the nature of the document and the sensitivity of its contents. Even if you knew a document existed, I'm damned if you would know how you would set about trying to find it'.

Joyce Drakeley, the office manager, said that on the Monday after the burglary the firm's building seemed peculiarly tidy. 'I got the impression someone knew what he was looking for,' she said. 'It was all so neat. I found it hard to believe at first we had been burgled.'

Apart from the notes of the interview with Mr Ashdown, just pounds 230 petty cash was taken. The case continues today.