Paper offered 20,000 pounds for Ashdown story: Police uncertain whether burglar knew what he was looking for in raid on Liberal Democrat leader's solicitors, court told

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The Independent Online
A burglar with 'Conservative leanings' stole an aide memoire from Paddy Ashdown's solicitors which sketched out details of an old affair between the Liberal Democrat leader and his former secretary, an Old Bailey jury was told yesterday.

Police have been unable to find out if Simon Berkowitz knew what he was looking for when he broke into a safe in the offices of Bates, Wells and Braithwaite. 'It was an intriguing question,' David Bate, for the prosecution, said. Just the document and pounds 223.63 in cash were taken.

With the document - which will not be read in court - in his possession, Mr Berkowitz met a reporter from the News of the World and began what Mr Bate described as a story of 'greed, opportunism and political muck-raking' displaying the 'seamier side of . . . cheque-book journalism'.

Mr Ashdown was forced to issue a writ against the News of the World and then, in the run-up to the general election, to make the potentially damaging admission that he had once had a liaison with Patricia Howard.

Mr Berkowitz, 45, of Hove, East Sussex, denied stealing the document and handling stolen goods. He admitted contacting the News of the World but said the document had been given to him by a stranger in a Brighton pub. That explanation was 'moonshine', Mr Bate said.

The court heard that Mr Ashdown had gone to solicitors' offices in May 1990 for advice on a brief relationship with his former secretary in 1985. A note of the meeting was put in a safe in the cellar of the City of London firm.

The prosecution alleged that Mr Berkowitz broke into the safe on the second weekend in January and realised he 'could make a fortune by selling a copy of the stolen document'.

Mr Berkowitz said he had Conservative leanings but admired the stance Mr Ashdown tookduring the Gulf war. He thought about the ethics of what he was doing and whether he should send the document to Mr Ashdown.

The moral dilemma was quickly resolved and 'within hours of stealing the document he was in contact with the News of the World', Mr Bate said. Mr Berkowitz phoned a special scandal line and arranged to meet a reporter at Victoria railway station. The reporter, who Mr Berkowitz told police 'looked like a balding old vicar', said he would be swinging his spectacles. Mr Berkowitz said he would respond to the codename 'Lily'. They met on 15 January and 'hastened to a bar in the Grovesnor Hotel'.

Mr Berkowitz produced a photocopy of the document and the reporter's eyes 'lit up'. He said it was an absolutely wonderful story and was worth 'tens of thousands of pounds' to the defendant.

'No doubt the reporter hoped he would have a sensational scoop for the News of the World which would shake the Liberal Democrats to its foundations and rival the Jeremy Thorpe affair,' Mr Bate said.

Mr Berkowitz asked for pounds 30,000 and the News of the World offered pounds 20,000. The paper wanted the original document to be photographed and then destroyed. This was because, Mr Bate said, possession of the original, knowing it to be stolen, would be a crime.

The reporter and Mr Berkowitz also discussed whether the record of the affair could be a 'complete set-up by one or other political parties in an attempt to create a smear'. To check whether it was genuine, the paper, 'attempted to hold Mr Ashdown and Mrs Howard to ransom' by pressurising them into admitting the affair. Mrs Howard was tracked down and approached three times. At first she was friendly, Mr Berkowitz told police. By the third meeting she was very irritable and slammed the door in reporters' faces. The paper also tried to speak to Mr Ashdown and his solicitor.

The plan backfired when the Liberal Democrat leader sent an injuction to the News of the World requiring it to return all copies of the document. When rumours began to circulate, Mr Ashdown 'decided to take the initiative and hold a press conference which resulted in a blaze of publicity, admitting the relationship', Mr Bate said. 'In this way the News of the World was denied a scoop and Berkowitz denied his pounds 30,000.'

The reporter said Mr Ashdown's action was 'a choker'. Mr Berkowitz told police it had left him 'absolutely pissed off'.

The case continues today.