Monday 14 January 2013

Hackgate - April Casburn's Conviction - Myths And Misconceptions

The latest from my regular contributor.

Within 24 hours, via Google search, there were 457 news artcles on-line reporting the conviction of Detective Chief Inspector April Casburn for misconduct in public office.  Casburn's trial (background here) was the first of Operation Elveden, the Metropolitan Police (MET) investigation into alleged multiple incidences of News International's bribery and corruption of police officers, prison officers, members of armed forces and other public officials.  The story generated interest beyond the UK and was published in, amongst others, the Vancouver Sun, LA Times, The Hindu, Oman Tribune, The Australian, and the Braintree and Witham Times.   

The accounts (thanks to the press wires) are pretty similar:  DCI Casburn of SO15 Counter Terrorism attended a meeting detailing a review of the phone hacking investigation named Operation Varec (for details see here).  Casburn phoned the News of the World (NOTW) the following morning, offering insider knowledge for payment.

It was reported too that Casburn was particularly resentful at what regarded as interference by John Prescott.  The day after Casburn's conviction, Prescott referred to her in the House of Lords debate on the Leveson Report:
The more recent case, which does involve me, is that of the chief superintendent (sic) who was found yesterday to have been paid by the News of the World. When they ring up to say, "Will you give me a few bob because I'll tell you Prescott's pressuring us for an inquiry", that is as serious as the actual payment. We in our job have to do what we think is right; and, in my case, I was pressing for a further inquiry because the conclusions of the first one were not true. I am right to do that as a parliamentarian, yet they can ring up a paper like the News of the World. She wanted to use the public interest defence but it was financial, as the courts found yesterday.
Even more surprising than the story's global reach is the sobering knowledge of just how much of the above is inaccurate.

- Myth 1:  DCI Casburn was paid by NOTW.

The evidence to the court was an aide-memoire NOTW internal email written by NOTW reporter Tim Wood, stating Casburn was willing to "sell" information on the re-opened investigation.  Coming at the exact time NOTW phone hacking was under scrutiny, Wood suspected her phone call was a sting.  Casburn denied asking for payment, no evidence of payment was presented to the court, nor did the prosecution even suggest that NOTW followed up Casburn's leak let alone make her a financial offer.

- Myth 2:  Isn't it only an offence if there is payment involved?

Casburn was convicted of Misconduct in Public Office.  Misconduct is a serious offence with a maximum penalty of life imprisonment.  The standard of misconduct must fall demonstrably below that reasonably expected of the trust the public place in a public official.  Arguably it is the breach of trust which primarily the offence, whether or not payment was involved. Casburn's defence argued that names she gave of former NOTW journalists to be newly investigated were already in the public domain. Operation Varec's SIO (Senior Investigating Officer), Dean Haydon, gave evidence that Casburn's leak included crucial information not in the public domain - strategic, tactical and timing information which jeopardised the whole investigation - in addition to which legal offences were being considered by Varec.  In Haydon's view, Casburn's aim was to undermine the new investigation.

- Myth 3  Casburn was aggrieved by fellow officers' cavalier attitudes at SO15 meeting on Operation Varec.

No such meeting took place.  Casburn was not a member of the tight-security, 'need-to-know' Varec investigating team - she headed Counter-Terrorism Financial Investigations Unit.  Only one of her 60 staff was required to provide some short term support to Operation Varec on a confidential basis.  Casburn should therefore have had no knowledge of Varec details.

That key meeting when SO15 officers joked about meeting Sienna Miller, acted like "Life on Mars in the 21st century", and welcomed re-opening the phone hacking investigation as a "jolly" at public expense? Despite Heruclean efforts (including overnight as the trial itself continued), Scotland Yard could find no trace of the alleged meeting - no minutes, no notes, no records.  Those alleged to have attended had no knowledge of it.  It was not logged in any alleged attendees time-sheets or diaries - nor was it even in DCI Casburn's own diary.

The prosecution argued that, on arrest, Casburn offered no explanation as to how she knew the details of Operation Varec, nor why she had contacted NOTW.  It was only many months later, whilst on bail, that Casburn first mentioned the alleged meeting. Prosecuting counsel argued that her account of a meeting was invented later, in order to cover up how she'd really got access to the Varec information and to invent a justification for her contacting NOTW the next morning.  Clearly the jury agreed - though should any record of the disputed meeting surface it could of course be used in any appeal.

- Myth 4:  Casburn felt intimidated by her line manager who had an intrusive management style.

The line manager with alleged 'intrusive' style, Detective Superintendent Christos Kalamanianous, was only appointed as Casburn's line manager on 6th September 2010.  Casburn telephoned NOTW early on 11th September 2010 - just 5 working days after Kalamanianous' appointment. This was hardly enough time for him to demonstrate his management style, and certainly not a sustained period of stress-inducing bullying.  However the MET did not dispute that DCI Casburn had been disadvantaged previously by not being resourced with either a desk or an office.

DS Kalamanianous gave evidence in person, and brought to the court's attention that during a break in proceedings he had been approached by a member of the press for comment.  Justice Fulford, as can be imagined, was not best pleased and issued a firm rebuke to the press gallery on the inadvisability of attempting to talk to witnesses - particularly one who had yet to complete giving his evidence to the court.

- Myth 5:  DCI Casburn contacted the newspaper as a whistleblower.

Casburn asserted that she felt powerless to prevent the waste of counter-terrorism resources being spent on re-opening the phone hacking investigation.  Context is important here: the offence pre-dates large scale, resource-heavy Operations Weeting, Elveden and Tuleta (here).  Casburn conceded though that she was not part of the Varec team, had no idea what resources were actually to be committed, made no attempt to find out through standard operating procedures, nor did she raise her strongly held reservations with any colleague.

The court heard that she had chosen NOTW because it was a large circulation paper to get her whistleblower story out into the public domain, and because NOTW was a Sunday newspaper it was most appropriate as she was made her call on a Saturday morning.  Casburn denied choosing NOTW because they were exactly the newspaper under suspicion - prompting prosecuting counsel to risk sounding like Humphrey Bogart by observing "Of all the papers, in all the world..." The unanimous guilty verdict seems to show the jury disagreed with Casburn's attempt to paint herself as akin to the high-minded Deep Throat of Watergate fame.

- Sentencing to follow

Justice Fulford is the judge who appears to be allocated all Hackgate-related hearings (known and unknown).  His sentencing remarks in a couple of weeks time will therefore be extremely interesting to Hackgate watchers.  Other police and public official 'Misconduct' arrests have been made and - whilst the circumstances and contexts of each individual offence are unique - Casburn's sentence may act as a weather-vane. Indeed the sequencing of Casburn's case as the first trial of Hackgate is significant in that respect - juries judge the evidence, but the judge deliberates on the sentence.  It is the first trial resulting from email information volunteered to the MET by News Group Newspapers' controversial MSC (Management and Standards Committee).  It is also the first conviction of Operation Elvedon - overseen by the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC).  This may leave future defendants trying to read the runes on what kind of sentence they might anticipate if found guilty.  There can be little doubt that Fulford's name will become more and more familiar over 2013 and beyond.

And when more trials come to court there remains that salutory lesson on myths... You cannot believe all you read in the papers - or even all you might hear in the House of Lords.

Related Articles
Hackgate - Varec Revisited - Dissent In The Ranks
Hackgate - Sue Akers' Swansong
Hackgate - "Newsdesk Here, Kelvin Speaking..."
Hackgate - Andre Baker - A Hackgate Footnote?
Hackgate - Ten To Watch For
Hackgate - Dear Surrey Police

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1 comment:

  1. You ought to ask "top spy" Derek Haslam or "Martin Ingram" the ex Sgt (or was it Field Marshal?) Ian Hurst about that.