Westminster solicitor rejects cover-up claims

FRESHFIELDS partner Robert Lewis, who has been accused of helping Tory councillors to cover-up an alleged gerrymandering scam, has fiercely rejected the auditor's “monstrous and dreadful conclusion”.

He told the Westminster Council homes-for-votes hearing that the provisional findings of auditor John Magill had “cast a shadow” over his professional life.

Lewis, the council's deputy chief solicitor between 1986 and 1988, told the hearing: “It is inconceivable that I would have allowed a decision to be made that I believed was unlawful.”

But the enquiry heard that Lewis had said in interview that Dame Shirley Porter's flagship authority was “a ruthless place” suffering from “a very deep rot”.

“One could not simply go to the councillors and say 'we are going to stop all this' because we would all have been sacked. It was that kind of place,” he had said in interview. But later in his statement to the hearing he said his own job would not have been on the line.

The auditor's provisional view was that Lewis should be surcharged u21 million along with other councillors and officers for his part in a plan to sell off homes in marginal wards to increase the Tory vote.

Magill said Lewis knew about the “key wards” policy and was involved in disguising the true motives by selling off houses in both marginal and non-marginal wards.

But Christopher Clarke QC, acting for Lewis, questioned why a local government solicitor “with unblemished character who attached importance to political neutrality” would want to improperly help Conservative councillors win an election.

Lewis said he had been adamant that a proposed change in housing policy in 1987 should be referred to counsel, Jeremy Sullivan QC.

“I was absolutely convinced that through following his advice, what might have been an unlawful decision was completely lawful,” he said.

“I have never forgotten Mr Sullivan's phrase, repeated at two consultations, that the decision would be 'completely judge-proof'.”

Sullivan was due to appear at the end of the month to give evidence.