A district judge and six court clerks facing corruption allegations were arrested after a listening device was concealed secretly in a Merseyside solicitor's office by police investigating a major drugs syndicate.
Detectives hoped the bug would yield clues to at least one murder and the laundering of millions of pounds. Instead, it led them to a pile of unwanted garden rockery stones, a lap dancing club and tickets to watch Liverpool FC.
The solicitor, Kevin Dooley, 59, was also arrested and will be questioned again by police tomorrow. A second district judge and three clerks were questioned under caution last month. All work in Merseyside's seven magistrates' courts. None has been charged. Meanwhile, the operation against the syndicate has stalled.
The arrests have aroused alarm and scepticism in legal circles. Eavesdropping by law-enforcement agencies on confidential lawyer-client discussion is believed to be unprecedented, and even Merseyside Police admit the cases overheard in Mr Dooley's office "could best be described as minor". But the police say they take "extremely seriously" the allegation that Mr Dooley sought to influence courts by asking clerks to alter the timetable for hearing cases, or seeking their advice on variable bail conditions and sentencing options. He has not been accused of approaching the judges, or attempting to influence the outcome of trials.
At least 10 allegations concern tickets for Liverpool matches, or footballs and shirts autographed by players, The Independent on Sunday has learnt.
Mr Dooley has close business and personal links to both the city's football clubs, and represents players including Robbie Fowler and Duncan Ferguson.
Sources claim he was paid for the much-sought tickets he bought over many years on behalf of friends and contacts, including senior police officers and lawyers as well as the clerks and judges involved in the current action.
In one episode cited by police, Mr Dooley obtained a signed football that he gave free to a clerk who wanted a Liverpool FC prize in a raffle to raise funds for a child suffering from leukaemia.
Mr Dooley is also believed to have offered use of his holiday flat in the Yorkshire Dales to two clerks who were long-standing friends, and to have dined with them during holidays abroad.
One clerk was offered free of charge the stones from Mr Dooley's dismantled garden rockery. The terminally ill wife of another was given part-time office work, and a complimentary pass arranged for a third clerk to Angels, a city-centre lapdancing club for which Mr Dooley acted.
"The whole thing seems utterly bizarre – friendships are extremely common between solicitors, clerks and even magistrates," a leading lawyer specialising in professional conduct cases said. "It is a daily occurrence to seek guidance and discuss listings with clerks."
Clerks have been guests at social events hosted by other Liverpool law practices, and no code of conduct regulates relationships between clerks, judges and lawyers.
In 1999, Mr Dooley came under scrutiny by the Merseyside Police Unit that has now spent more than 10 years fruitlessly investigating Curtis Warren, Britain's most prodigious drug-runner.
Warren, who is serving a 22-year jail sentence in the Netherlands, laundered an estimated £80m through complex transactions, and was linked with the murder in 1997 of an informant believed in the underworld to have told police where £1m was buried.
Mr Dooley's clients included alleged associates of the Warren syndicate. Files were seized and a bug installed in the office between March 1999 and April 2000, the dates covered by the corruption allegations.
Last July, senior detectives had confidently predicted that a series of charges were about to be brought for laundering the Warren millions. But none was made, despite an intensive operation by Merseyside and National Crime Squad officers based on intercepted telephone calls.
The operation now faces a humiliating collapse if an important legal move this month fails.
In June 2000, the Law Society closed Mr Dooley's firm because of its involvement in controversial investment schemes. He is restricted to working as a solicitor for other firms, and may face action by the Law Society to disqualify him.Reuse content