OFT pulls criminal case after document review failure

The Office of Fair Trading (OFT) has withdrawn criminal proceedings against four British Airways (BA) executives who were alleged to have been involved in a multinational price-fixing scam.

The OFT, which instructed 7 Bedford Row barrister Richard Latham QC,  halted court proceedings yesterday after it emerged it had not reviewed 70,000 documents, including 12,000 to and from key prosecution witness Paul Moore, Virgin Atlantic’s former corporate affairs chief.

In a statement it said: “Given that the trial had already begun and the volume of material involved, the OFT accepts that to continue with the trial in light of this unforeseen development would be potentially unfair to the defendants.”

The OFT named four executives who were alleged to have dishonestly conspired with Virgin Atlantic between July 2004 and April 2006 to fix the price of fuel surcharges.

Virgin Atlantic had blown the whistle on its conspiracy with BA in 2006 and was given immunity from prosecution. In August 2007, however, BA was fined £121.5m for its involvement in the cartel by the OFT (2 August 2007).

The OFT then decided to pursue criminal charges against the airline’s former commercial director Martin George, former head of UK and Ireland sales Alan Burnett, ex-communications head Iain Burns and current sales and marketing director Andrew Crawley. All four were acquitted by the jury at Southwark Crown Court yesterday.

The collapse of the case will raise serious questions about the ability of the OFT to pursue criminal convictions.

Matrix Chambers’ Ben Emmerson QC who was instructed by Peters & Peters head of fraud Michael O’ Kane to act for Burns, told the court yesterday that the OFT was guilty of incompetence on a “monumental scale”.

Lawyers in the case:

7 Bedford Row’s Richard Latham QC for the OFT

Kingsley Napley criminal partner Stephen Pollard instructed Matrix Chambers’ Clare Montgomery QC for George

Peters & Peters head of fraud Michael O’Kane instructed Queen Elizabeth Building’s William Boyce QC for Burnett

Peters & Peters head of fraud Michael O’Kane instructed Matrix Chambers’ Ben Emmerson QC for Burns

Irwin Mitchell partner Kevin Robinson instructed 2 Hare Court’s Andrew Radcliffe for Crawley