Ex-businessman claims Serious Fraud Office colluded with Mail on Sunday

  • MYSTERY OVER SFO probe into allegations of internal corruption
  • LAWYERS FIRST RAISED concerns about an SFO investigator leaking to reporters
  • THEN A POTENTIAL WITNESS allegedly felt ‘threatened’ by MoS finance editor
  • SFO WAS ACCUSED of failing to disclose information to defence team
  • HOWEVER COMPLAINTS WERE DISMISSED after SFO internal inquiry found them baseless
  • BUT VICTIM CLAIMS THAT NO evidence of inquiry has ever been found
Pedestrians walk past the sign outside the headquarters of the Serious Fraud Office in London. (Alamy)

By Chris Allen & Graham Johnson

THE CASE OF a businessman smeared by the Mail on Sunday raises alarming questions about the paper’s relationship with the Serious Fraud Office (SFO).

Former nightclub impresario Michael Ward was jailed following an SFO probe into his finances and a series of articles in the flagship Associated Newspapers title.

He claims his defence was hampered after the Rothermere-owned paper ‘stole’ vital documents from his home and destroyed them. 

Mr Ward has made further allegations against the Mail on Sunday (MoS) and former SFO officials amid his campaign to have Part 2 of the Leveson Inquiry into press ethics reinstated.

They came in a failed application to judicially review the government’s decision to shelve the inquiry, and include:

  • SFO investigators failed to disclose information to Mr Ward’s defence – including details of an MoS editor being prosecuted for contempt and the paper’s payments to witnesses.
  • Confidential details of the SFO investigation were leaked to MoS reporters who fed them to potential witnesses.
  • The SFO lied when it claimed it had reviewed its inquiry into Mr Ward.
Former nightclub impresario Michael Ward, taken while he was chairman of European Leisure Ltd

Ex-merchant banker Mr Ward, 73, said: ‘This is a blatant case of newspaper criminality. 

‘I was constantly beseeching the SFO for an investigation into my complaints, but it wasn’t forthcoming. To my mind, that is a colossal abuse of process.’

'The fine art of a cash conspiracy' By Lawrence Lever and Clive Wolman for The Mail on Sunday, May 9, 1993
‘The fine art of a cash conspiracy’ By Lawrence Lever and Clive Wolman for The Mail on Sunday, May 9 1993
‘Secret shares support riddle’ By Clive Wolman for the Mail on Sunday, March 15 1992

The SFO was set up in April 1988 to investigate complex corruption and fraud after a string of high profile financial scandals rocked the City of London through the 70s and 80s.

It announced its investigation into Michael Ward four years later, on March 6th 1992. 

He had recently resigned as CEO of nightclub giant European Leisure after the MoS accused him of financial misconduct – and was suing the paper for libel.

Barely three weeks after the SFO probe began, MoS Finance Editor Lawrence Lever entered Mr Ward’s Belgravia home with the help of his estranged wife Leonora.

The journalist removed a huge number of documents – passing a handful to the SFO. 

Lever was later secretly recorded by Mr Ward as he disclosed details of the SFO’s evidence to Leonora and instructed her not to repeat them.

In a transcript of the conversation – seen by Byline Investigates – Lever also stresses Leonora should keep the MoS payments to her a secret.

‘The transcript reveals that Lever was receiving very detailed and confidential information upon the status of the enquiry and upon the evidence purportedly being discovered,’ Mr Ward said in his judicial review bid.

‘It is clear that Lever is then using this unauthorised information secretly being leaked to him as a weapon with which to bring witnesses onto his side, convincing them of my guilt – within days of the commencement of the SFO investigation.’

Michael Ward

In his Judicial Review statement of reasons, Mr Ward also accuses the Mail on Sunday of harassing and threatening potential defence witnesses.

Mr Ward says the claim is supported by a witness statement from an ex-employee and concerns Lever, now executive chairman of financial news service City Wire.

The statement – made by Mr Ward’s former PA – was not produced in Mr Ward’s trial but reveals how she was ‘threatened’ by Lever when she failed to return his calls. 

The witness said Lever left an answerphone message saying he and MoS City Editor Clive Wolman wanted to speak to her.

‘Unless I telephoned that evening, and left a number, or spoke to Clive Wolman, they would consider writing an article stating that I had taken documents from European Leisure on Michael’s behalf to his house on the night of his resignation…’ the PA wrote.  

‘The message upset me. It was threatening and I resented that a journalist should treat me in that way, invading the privacy of my home.’

Mr Ward’s solicitors wrote to the SFO throughout 1992 and into 1993, outlining their concerns and alleging “improper collaboration” with the MoS.

Mr Ward has retained has retained copies of the correspondence.

‘Tarnished Midas’ By Lawrence Lever for the Mail on Sunday, April 5th 1992

In an astonishing written reply dated 6th August 1993, SFO director George Staple denied any collusion, and added: ‘It is not for me to answer for or to comment upon the way in which the press do their work.’

He admitted that MoS had passed ‘material of an evidential nature’ to investigating SFO officers.

And he went on to say in his letter: ‘When dealing with witnesses and informants, the police clearly speak about the matters in respect of which the evidence is forthcoming, and they have done so in this case quite properly and legitimately for the purposes of the investigation.’

Staple – who later dismissed as ‘outrageous’ accusations that he lied to Parliament during an inquiry into the SFO’s bungled prosecution of financier Roger Levitt-  also insisted in his letter that Lever obtained documents lawfully. 

And he said Mr Ward’s claims that documents were not returned were ‘not accepted at face value.’

But the Criminal Cases Review Commission (CCRC) took a very different view when it scrutinised Mr Ward’s case in 2005.

The CCRC concluded in its Provisional Statement of Reasons for refusing to refer Mr Ward’s to the Court of Appeal: ‘Some of these documents were subsequently passed on to the SFO, but many were destroyed.’

Wolman also suggested in Mr Ward’s trial that Lever had been trying to ‘please’ an SFO detective called Robbie Martindill – and said the officer was his MoS colleague’s ‘close contact’.

‘Plainly the same officer was leaking to the two of them, in return for monetary payment,’ Mr Ward alleged in his 2019 judicial review application.

The Metropolitan Police’s Complaints Investigation Bureau later asked Martindill to give an interview over his role in the SFO inquiry into European Leisure – but he declined.

Mr Ward lobbied Home Secretary Michael Howard alleging malpractice by the MoS, and in May 1995 the SFO pledged to hold an internal inquiry into its handling of Mr Ward’s case.

Just two months later, it issued a press release saying the review was complete.

‘Nothing has been found to cast any doubt on the integrity of the investigation or the prosecution,’ the SFO said in a statement.

The SFO again concluded documents used in Mr Ward’s case were obtained legitimately and failed to address any of Mr Ward’s other concerns about alleged MoS malpractice, although it said it would be ‘inappropriate to comment on matters relating to a forthcoming trial.’

SFO inquiry into Ward complaint‘ by Dominic Prince and David Hillier for The Independent, July 9 1995

Mr Ward says he was never interviewed for the internal inquiry, and has never seen a copy of its findings.

Instead he was told in writing by SFO Deputy Director John Knox that an ‘extensive review’ had been carried out and that the MoS had not stolen his documents.

However the CCRC later said neither it nor the Police Complaints Authority had found any evidence that a report had been prepared or completed.

Knox went on to say that the newspaper’s journalists would be giving evidence at Mr Ward’s forthcoming trial, and it would be up to the jury to decide if Mr Ward’s claims about document theft were true.

But in fact Lever didn’t even provide a witness statement to the SFO, while only Wolman appeared in the witness box.

And he told the jury he had instructed one Brook Anderson – an interior designer working at Mr Ward’s home to – procure documents for him. 

Mr Ward was convicted in September 1995 on two counts – causing the falsification of a document and making a false or misleading document – and was jailed for 12 months.

Wolman was quizzed during the trial over secret payments made by the MoS to Brook Anderson.

The SFO had told Mr Ward’s defence team that the witness had been paid two sums of £560 by the newspaper for documents and photos.

But it emerged in the trial that the SFO’s case controller, Gordon Dickinson, had contacted Wolman after the hearing to clarify the size of the payments.

Dickinson had asked whether Anderson could have been paid ‘as much as £4,000’ – which Wolman thought at the time was unlikely.

SFO witness “paid £4,000 by newspaper“‘ by David Hillier for The Independent, September 13 1995

However, he went on to confirm under cross examination that Anderson had in fact received £4250.

In the trial it emerged that the SFO knew Anderson had in fact been paid £4,000.

Wolman gave evidence as a key prosecution witness – but jurors were kept in the dark about his recent prosecution for contempt of court. 

Both Wolman and the Mail on Sunday had been fined £60k after jurors in a flagship SFO case known as the ‘Blue Arrow trial’ were tricked into revealing their deliberations. 

The prosecution by the Attorney General was not revealed to Mr Ward’s lawyers by the SFO – a failing which the CCRC put down to ‘clerical error’.

The CCRC – which refused to refer Mr Ward’s case to the Court of Appeal – went on to say: ‘It is extremely unlikely that the prosecution would have chosen to withhold formal disclosure of something which was in the public domain at the relevant time.’

Mr Ward sued MoS publisher Associated Newspapers for libel in May, when they admitted removing documents from his home without his permission. 

Mr Ward commented: ‘As I proved in my Libel case, the Mail on Sunday committed serious criminal misconduct throughout the SFO proceedings. It did so on an industrial scale and continued for three years. This was equivalent to conspiracy to pervert the course of justice.

‘This could not have happened without the SFO’s blessing and support. The SFO is meant to stop criminality, not defend it. 

‘This amounts to a major abuse of process. It is not too late to hold people to account.’

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