Lord Ashcroft, KCMG.
Listening to Peter Clarke, the former Deputy Assistant Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, giving evidence to the Home Affairs Select Committee this week, I was reminded once again of the activities of Ed Miliband’s Director of Communications, Tom Baldwin.
The trigger for this reminder was when Mr Clarke said that he found that News International had been, in his view, “a global organisation with access to the best legal advice” which was “deliberately trying to thwart a criminal investigation”. I had a very similar experience with News International which I would like to share. My experience was with The Times.
Before I do so, however, I wish to make clear that I have little beef with The Times under the stewardship of its most recent editors. With the departure of Mr Baldwin, there is little which remains of The Times team which sought to smear me under Peter Stothard’s leadership at the turn of the century. Robert Thomson, who followed Mr Stothard, was a model of professionalism.
I am revealing today for the first time a memorandum written eight years ago by Alastair Brett, the-then legal manager of Times Newspapers Limited.
A 16-page legal advice was attached to this memo which had been commissioned by the legal department of The Times in order to protect Mr Baldwin and others. It makes fascinating reading. The Times’s lawyers had sought this advice from one of Britain’s leading criminal Queen’s Counsels, whose identity I am not revealing.
The advice was thought necessary because the United States Department of Justice wished to interview Mr Baldwin and other journalists from the paper. This was entirely understandable.
The US Attorney’s office in Atlanta, Georgia, wanted to interview the journalists following the jailing of a public official in the United States for receiving corrupt payments from the newspaper in exchange for the provision of classified information.
The memo is significant because it suggests that Randy Chartash, the Assistant US District Attorney in Atlanta, was convinced that – even after the jailing of Jonathan Randel, the corrupt public official – there was prima facie evidence that employees of The Times had committed a crime by, in layman’s terms, bribing Randel to break the law.
For those new to this long-running episode, I should explain that in the late 1990s I was targeted by The Times and New Labour in my role as Treasurer of the Conservative Party under William Hague’s leadership.
Toby Follett was a freelance television reporter who made a low-budget television programme about international crime. During his research, he came into contact with Randel, an analyst who was working for the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA).
In 1999, Randel illegally supplied Mr Follett with confidential information about me and – although I had done nothing improper – this was used by The Times in a failed attempt to discredit me. Eventually, following the publication of other stories, which the legal department of The Times received directly from Randel, I sued the newspaper for defamation and it later published a front-page retraction over its claims.
The memo was dated March 17, 2003, and was addressed to four journalists on the paper, including Mr Baldwin. It was written on the headed notepaper of Times Newspapers Limited’s Legal Department.
The memo, written personally by Mr Brett, the legal manager, was headed:
“FOR THE EYES OF THE ADDRESSEES ONLY. STRICTLY PRIVATE AND CONFIDENTIAL.”
The memo read:
“As you know there have been attempts to get The Times joined into the prosecution that the US authorities brought against Jon Randel, the DEA analyst who was working with Toby Follett during the Ashcroft inquiry. Randel has now been sentenced but to our amazement, Randy Chartash, the Assistant U.S. District Attorney in Atlanta has written to Tom Crone, News International’s Legal Manager, asking if he can interview certain people here and look at various TNL records. This is in spite of Randel pleading guilty to one charge and getting a twelve month sentence.
“Why Chartash should still be investigating someone who has pleaded guilty and been sentenced remains a mystery but it was deemed prudent to seek counsel’s opinion on the matter and what if anything we might be compelled to reveal under the Criminal Justice (International Cooperation) Act 1990. I attach a copy of the advice we have now received from [name redacted] QC. As you are one of the people Chartash would like to interview, you may be interested in the legal advice. This is being sent to you on a strictly confidential basis. Please do not under any circumstances allow it to go outside the small group of people listed above.
It is not without significance that the interviews in London were sought after the conviction in Georgia and in the context of a continuing investigation. It was expected that others would be indicted (charged). Those further indictments never happened. Was a global organisation with access to “the best legal advice”, to use Mr Clarke’s own words, “deliberately trying to thwart a criminal investigation”?
I should add that Randel, the corrupt public official, was allowed by The Times to fester in a United States federal prison for 12 long months directly as a result of the actions of the newspaper. Meanwhile, those journalists in London involved appear to have sought to avoid answering the questions of the US Attorney’s Office. It will come, I am sure, as little surprise to readers of this blog to learn that those people, including Mr Baldwin, were not interviewed.
Following Mr Baldwin’s involvement in “blagging” into the bank account of the Conservative Party, this is the second time his name has surfaced in connection with corruption, this time of a US Government employee. Is this a pattern?
However, last week Mr Crone, the other lawyer mentioned in the memo, became the latest casualty of the News of the World “hacking” scandal when it was announced he was departing after more than 20 years with News International.
Someone who should be taking a special interest in all of this is News Corp director, Viet Dinh, the Professor of Law at Georgetown University. At the same time that the US Attorney's Office in Atlanta was seeking to interview The Times' journalists, Mr Dinh was none other than the US Assistant Attorney-General. Mr Dinh, who is one of two directors overseeing the internal investigations at News Corp, the parent company of News International, will no doubt take a particular interest in my revelation.
Although I am publishing details of this memo for the first time today, a full analysis of this whole episode, including payments made by The Times, can be found in my book, Dirty Politics, Dirty Times. The book can be downloaded from my website www.lordashcroft.com.