Jim Devine denies lying in TV interview

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The Independent Online

A former MP accused of fiddling his expenses today denied in court that he lied in a television interview to give an "air of authenticity" to his claims.

Jim Devine, 57, who held a seat in the House of Commons for Livingston in Scotland, is on trial at Southwark Crown Court for falsely claiming almost £9,000 from the public purse.

The former Labour backbencher says he requested invoices from his stationery company because he believed he was allowed to transfer money from his communications allowance in order to cover staffing costs.

Cross-examining Devine, prosecutor Peter Wright QC referred to an interview given by Devine to Channel 4 News on February 5 last year, the day he was charged with false accounting.

Facing questions from the presenter, Krishnan Guru-Murthy, Devine was asked: "So what about the stationery receipts?"

The former MP told the journalist that there was an order for some leaflets with his stationery company Armstrong Printing, with whom he had an account, at the time.

Mr Wright said, in fact, all of the money went towards staffing costs, and the receipts did not relate to any stationery orders.

He said: "But the money in its entirety went towards the payment of this lady that you will not name.

"You knew it wasn't anything to do with the leaflets."

Devine told the court: "I couldn't remember whether it was two receipts or it was three."

The prosecutor put it to Devine: "Or was it that you were just trying to get a partial, inaccurate and untruthful account of what you had been up to, which had an air of authenticity about it."

Devine said: "No."

The former psychiatric nurse and union official is on trial facing two charges of false accounting.

The first count alleges that, between July 2008 and May 2009, Mr Devine dishonestly claimed £3,240 for cleaning services from Tom O'Donnell Hygiene and Cleaning Services.

The second count alleges that between March 2009 and April 2009, Mr Devine dishonestly claimed £5,505 for stationery from Armstrong Printing using false invoices.

Devine of West Main Street, Bathgate, West Lothian, denies both charges.

Devine asked the retired secretary of Armstrong Limited, Jennifer McCrea, to mark two invoices "received with thanks", when the jobs were never completed or paid for.

She did not stamp them, but she passed them up to her manager William Lochie, who did.

Mr Wright said one of the false receipts, with an order for 20,000 questionnaires, was deliberately designed by Devine to correspond to an identical legitimate order that he made previously.

The prosecutor said: "You were trying to conceal what had gone on under a guise of a legitimate transaction with Armstrong Limited."

Devine denied that.

Mr Wright said the answers the former MP gave to the television interviewer did not match with what he actually did.

"Is it that you were just saying what came into your head at any particular time?" he asked.

Devine replied: "No."

The prosecutor added: "You thought you could brazen it out."

During the interview, Devine refers to a receipt for some cleaning which was carried out at his London home, but Mr Wright said Devine had previously said in evidence that he had destroyed it.

The barrister said: "But I thought you had shredded it?"

After Mr Justice Saunders, the trial judge, intervened to clarify, Devine said he was referring to a receipt that he was previously given, and had since shredded, and that it was not in his possession at the time of the interview.

Mr Wright asked: "Mr Devine, are you just making this up as you go along?"

"No, absolutely not," Devine said.

The prosecutor said: "Why did you say you had a receipt when you didn't?

"This is all simply made up."

But Devine replied: "No, absolutely not."

Addressing the court in his closing speech, Mr Wright explained the indictment has now been split into three counts.

The first count is in respect of two Tom O'Donnell Hygiene and Cleaning invoices of £180 each.

Mr Wright said that Devine's defence is that these invoices were written by Mr O'Donnell in respect of work carried out by a polish cleaner called Larissa.

Count two refers to three other invoices on Tom O'Donnell-headed paper for £360, £360 and £2,160.

These receipts, Devine said, were written out by a group of cleaners and maintenance staff on spare blank Tom O'Donnell invoices. The work was not done by employees of Mr O'Donnell, but by a second woman called Larissa, her boyfriend Tommy and her brother Arthur.

The amounts in counts two and three equal the £3,240 which previously made up the former second count on the indictment.

The new third count is identical to the previous second count, involving the invoices for Armstrong Printing Limited for £5,505.

Mr Wright said to the jury: "We say, and we invite you to consider, that the verdict in each of the counts is the same. Guilty."

The barrister continued: "Let's consider the principles of governance, the principles of conduct in public life."

Referring to the guide MPs are given to help with their expenses claims, he said: "They are reflected in the contents of the Green Book.

"Mr Devine says he was unaware of them. We say that's nonsense."

After outlining the principles of honesty and openness that MPs are expected to show when in office, he asked: "Well, was that the conduct of Jim Devine MP, as far as those invoices were concerned?"

Mr Wright said: "What he was engaged in was dishonest. It was fraud on the public purse and he knew it.

"It was a fraud that started out small and once he was satisfied that he could get away with it, it got even greater.

"£180 became £360. And then after that, £2,400, then £3,105."

Mr Wright explained that Mr O'Donnell would not have suspected Devine was up to anything dishonest when he gave him one blank invoice.

He said the publican was a friend of Devine's and he trusted him as an MP.

Mr Wright said Devine has invented a number of characters to support his case, including the group of cleaners and a woman he said did some research work for him, whom Mr Wright called "Miss X".

He said: "Larissa, Tommy and Arthur did not exist.

"If Miss X existed, it would not have made much difference. It was still a false document to obtain money to which he was not entitled.

"It's as much a figment of Mr Devine's imagination as a great deal of this case."

The barrister said the jury should not see MPs such as Devine as a "special category of people", and they should be treated like anybody else.

He said: "Mr Devine remains in a minority of one, because each and every time someone was asked as a witness, or an MP was brought along to give an account, it doesn't bear much resemblance to his memory of events."

The trial was adjourned to tomorrow at 10am, when Gavin Millar QC will address the jury to close the defence case, and Mr Justice Saunders will sum up the case.