Emily Thornberry attacks ministers for ‘failing to get a grip of the Serious Fraud Office’

By Frederika Whitehead | 8 January 2014

“This is the third investigation into the SFO in three years that ministers have tried to bury” – Emily Thornberry, shadow attorney general

The Serious Fraud Office is demanding that Exaro takes down from its website documents that were lost by the SFO from its most sensitive case.

But Exaro is refusing to comply, and is keeping on the site all its images of a sample of several pages from a huge cache of the SFO’s mislaid files.

Exaro contests a suggestion by the SFO that the publication of the documents is a breach of the Data Protection Act.

The confidential documents detail a series of mysterious payments – totalling $21.4 million – that went to Swiss bank accounts of secretive offshore companies.

The SFO obtained the papers during its six-year investigation into bribery allegations surrounding the sale by BAE Systems of military jets for billions of pounds to Saudi Arabia under ‘Al Yamamah’.

The paper trail was part of the case files that were lost by the SFO and found by Exaro in a dark corner of a warehouse in London’s Docklands. The mislaid cache of 32,000 pages, 81 audio tapes plus electronic media was stored next to a cannabis farm in the warehouse.

During its ill-fated investigation, the SFO forced BAE’s bankers, Lloyds TSB, to disclose records that set out the $21.4 million of transactions. But the documents do not identify the beneficial owners of the offshore companies.

Tony Blair’s Labour government forced the SFO to drop the investigation in 2006.

Sources close to the case told how the SFO feared that it had lost even more BAE files than initially thought.

However, one SFO source denied the claim to Exaro, saying that the law-enforcement agency is merely trying to find the “1.7 per cent” of material that it has not recovered.

The sample of documents from the SFO’s case files showed the sensitivity of the lost material.

The SFO’s chief investigator and senior information risk owner, Kevin Davis, previously wrote to Exaro to demand the return of any lost files in our possession.

Mark Watts, Editor-in-Chief of Exaro, told the SFO that he was unable to provide information that could help identify any confidential source.

But Exaro was able to supply the SFO with copies of photographs of the documents that were published on the website.

Davis has written to Exaro again to demand the removal of the documents.

He suggested that our access to the case files was a breach of the Data Protection Act, as was Exaro’s publication of the sample of documents.

Watts today wrote to the SFO to say that Exaro does not consider its publication of the lost documents to be a breach of the Data Protection Act.

He points out the Information Commissioner – not the SFO – regulates the Data Protection Act, which covers only personal – not corporate – information.

Watts added: “Accordingly, we will not be removing the material from our website.

“It constitutes clear evidence of the scale of the SFO’s incompetent handling of particularly sensitive files, and its publication by Exaro is plainly in the public interest.”

Meanwhile, Emily Thornberry, shadow attorney general, attacked the SFO and the government over their refusal to publish in full a report on a review of how the case files were lost.

The solicitor general, Oliver Heald, told Thornberry in response to a parliamentary question last month that the report’s author, Peter Mason, “found no evidence that the incorrect dispatch of material was malicious.”

Mason recommended that the SFO should:

  • designate specific staff as responsible for data at the end of investigations;
  • redraft the responsibilities of the SFO’s senior information risk owner;
  • make data handling a higher priority.

He is due to report shortly on progress on the recommendations.

Heald declined to publish the full report because “it contains personal data and operational information about the Serious Fraud Office.”

Thornberry told Exaro: “This is the third investigation into the SFO in three years that ministers have tried to bury. On the two previous occasions, the excuses that they repeatedly cited for blocking publication turned out to be spurious. Experience tells us this is probably the case here.

“This government has completely failed to get a grip of the SFO, and the UK’s reputation for fighting economic crime has suffered as a result.”

Update 30 March 2015: The Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO), which regulates how personal data is kept, today fined the SFO £180,000 after it lost the huge cache of documents.

In a statement, the ICO said that the SFO’s investigation had focussed on allegations that senior BAE executives had received payments, including two properties worth more than £6 million, as part of Al Yamamah. The investigation was closed in February 2010, it said.

The SFO returned more than 2,000 evidence bags that related to 64 people involved in the case to the wrong person. It continued: “In total, 407 of these bags contained information about third parties. The information included bank statements showing payments made by BAE Systems to various individuals, hospital invoices, DVLA documents and passport details.”

It said that the SFO had recovered 98 per cent of the lost documents.

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