SFO launches investigation into News International

The Serious Fraud Office has launched a preliminary investigation into News International in light of the ongoing phone-hacking scandal and allegations of corrupt payments made to members of the Metropolitan Police.

The early stages of the investigation, announced in a Channel 4 report yesterday (17 July), will look at a series of allegations of payments involving News International to determine whether a full investigation needs to be launched.

White collar crime expert Jason Mansell, a barrister at 7 Bedford Row, said the alleged payments were unlikely to meet the SFO’s usual £1m threshold, but the enormous public interest and political implications might have been a driving force in the investigation.

“Obviously it’s a very topical subject and they do want to be the lead agency who deals with these issues,” he said.

While the investigation’s relevance to the newly introduced Bribery Act is clear, Mansell said the allegations would still have carried weight under previous legislation.

“Bribery hasn’t just become a criminal offence. The type of payments which have allegedly been made to police officers would have been offences previously, and there would have been nothing preventing the SFO investigating payments under the Prevention of Corruption Act,” he said.

It is understood the SFO is looking into company finances at News International after former minister Tom Watson wrote to the SFO’s director urging him to investigate alleged breaches of company law within the organisation.

The letter pointed to alleged secret payments made to victims of phone-hacking practices at News of the World and said any such payments were a ‘gross misuse of shareholders’ money’.

But Mansell said he was unsure how much mileage there was for the SFO in pursuing alleged payments to individual victims.

“The most serious allegation is potentially corrupt payments being made to police officers in return for information,” Mansell continued. “That falls into an area of law which is quite clearly on the SFO’s radar screen.

“But in respect of other matters like whether or not payments to the victims of phone hacking have breached the directors’ fiduciary duties, or allegations that they’ve defrauded shareholders – I’m slightly sceptical that that will be of serious interest to the SFO.”

Mansell said that a full SFO investigation into the allegations could take up to 18 months, with resulting court action lasting a further 18 months.

“There are enough gateways for the SFO to serve wide-ranging information requirements on the organisations, and they’ll look at any criminal acts that come out of that,” he said. “If they do launch a formal investigation it’s likely to be lengthy and protracted.”

The latest development follows news that the Metropolitan Police has launched a review of its regular panel of external legal advisers, requesting hourly rates as low as £130 an hour for senior solicitors and partners – prompting questions of what quality of legal advice the Met will receive during a formal SFO investigation (18 July 2011).