Man who scrapes the bottom of the barrel for profit

With his flat cap, donkey jacket and thick glasses, Benjamin Pell looks like a harmless eccentric. But in the past week his peculiar choice of career has brought this dishevelled figure into the national spotlight. Pell, better known as Benji the Binman, sorts through rubbish bags for juicy stories to sell to the press.

With his flat cap, donkey jacket and thick glasses, Benjamin Pell looks like a harmless eccentric. But in the past week his peculiar choice of career has brought this dishevelled figure into the national spotlight. Pell, better known as Benji the Binman, sorts through rubbish bags for juicy stories to sell to the press.

With a hunt afoot to discover who leaked embarrassing memos from Tony Blair and his friends, Philip Gould and Lord Levy, fingers are pointing at this freelance binman from Hendon, north London.

Since he started several years ago, the former trainee lawyer, 36, has cornered a niche market supplying sensitive documents recovered from the dustbins of law firms, celebrities and people in the news. Most national newspapers have dealt with him at some stage, and he has unearthed some of the biggest stories of recent years.

He started by running anoffice cleaning company and began to branch out into collecting rubbish from outside the offices of lawyers. By 1997 he had hit the big time.

An invoice from News International, the owner of The Sunday Times, The Times, The Sun and the News of the World, shows Pell was paid £3,375 in April last year for stories on Jonathan Aitken, James Hewitt and allegations of ballot rigging in Hackney, east London. The invoice appears to have come from The Sunday Times.

Another invoice, from Mirror Group Newspapers, now part of Trinity Mirror, detailed a payment of £1,435 made last July showing for items ranging from £15 for a tale about the television presenter Clive Anderson to £400 for a story about former Spice Girl Geri Halliwell. The Mail on Sunday has admitted it used his material in the past. Punch is also in the frame.

Pell works hard at his job. He dresses like a binman complete with a fluorescent jacket. He and his van became a familiar sight around the Inns of Court, where Britain's top barristers work, and outside top lawyers firms around the capital. Money, however, is not the only motive for Pell's activities. He has worked with Max Clifford and in the past has left uncashed cheques lying around the office of the public relations consultant.

He was arrested in February after being found loading bins into his van outside Harkavy's, a solicitors in Harley Street, central London, whose clients include Jonathan Aitken, at 5.30am.

Psychiatric reports suggested that Pell suffered from a severe form of obsessive-compulsive disorder.

Pell pleaded guilty in November to five counts of theft and was fined £20. When the police raided his semi-detached home in Hendon, which he shares with his mother, they found an estimated 200,000 documents stored in the garden shed. Piles of bulging bin bags were also found in the house.

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