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THE SERIOUS Fraud Office tried to cover up its "bungled" attempt to prosecute Roger Levitt after being misled by its leading counsel David Cocks QC on the details of a plea bargain, according to MPs grilling SFO director George Staple.
Facing a second session with the Treasury and Civil Service Select Committee, Staple came under fire from MPs on the SFO's credibility in the light of the "inefficient" use of plea bargaining to secure an "appropriate sentence" for Levitt.
Staple admitted the SFO's credibility had suffered "from time to time" but strongly resisted criticisms over the way the SFO had performed in the Levitt trial. "I do not accept that this prosecution was bungled. In the end, Levitt pleaded to a very serious charge."
Battling against a storm from MPs accusing him of "prolix and discourteous answers" and "quibbling with words", Staple asserted: "I don't believe there has been any misleading of Parliament, nor do I feel there was any intention to do so."
Mike O'Brien MP, referring to statements by the Attorney General on 9 December 1993 that claimed a plea arose from Levitt's defence team on 22 November, said his concern was that "in my view, the SFO was knowingly involved in an attempt to mislead Parliament".
Staple confirmed that Cocks had checked off the Attorney General's answers.
Quentin Davies MP replied: "It emerges that Mr Cocks misled the SFO, which misled the Attorney General, who in turn misled Parliament."
Considering written evidence from counsel, MPs said that the prosecution had pushed for a plea on a much reduced indictment from May 1993, which Staple backed after meeting counsel on 5 November - referred to in a letter from Levitt's solicitors, Goldkorn Davies Mathias later that day.
Either the prosecution or defence counsel was lying to the committee about what actually happened in the conduct of the case, said O'Brien.
O'Brien said the prosecution was bungled by the SFO and its counsel and, to disguise that, Parliament was misled in two ways - over the conduct of the plea bargaining, and the fact that the SFO and its counsel claimed not to know that Levitt would only do a deal in return for a non-custodial sentence.
After the hearing, O'Brien said the committee will decide whether to call defence and prosecution counsel to give oral evidence. He added that Staple still had questions to answer over the Levitt "scandal", and that a judicial inquiry should be launched.