Westminster accused ready for battle

It has been described as “the largest act of corruption in the history of local government; corruption of the machinery itself”.

But now those with blackened reputations will have the chance to put their case at public hearings next month.

Among them will be Robert Lewis, at Freshfields since 1988, but who joined Westminster Council in 1986 as deputy city solicitor. One of his most important roles was to advise on housing matters. The respondents are accused of wilful misconduct.

If initial findings are upheld, he and eight others may be held “jointly and severally” responsible for paying back u21 million of council tax payers' money. Lewis, an environmental law partner, who is understood to be represented by Allen & Overy, refuses to comment on the case.

District auditor John Magill's four-year investigation culminated in a 700-page report and more than 12,000 pages of background documents. If he stands by his provisional view, the matter is likely to end up in the High Court.

The bill for the investigation, believed to be in excess of u1 million, will be footed by local residents, although the official objectors group wants costs added to the surcharges.

It is not yet known how the accused will mount their defence, but a united front looks unlikely. A more plausible scenario is back-biting among officers and councillors. Some may deny the policy's existence, others may claim they were aware of it, but not involved, and some may argue they believed it lawful.

So far respondents have concentrated their attack on undermining Magill who is being advised by solicitor Tony Child and QCs Lionel Read and John Howell. Dame Shirley Porter, former council leader, says Magill has metamorphosed between detective, prosecutor, judge and jury in compiling a “grossly unfair and deeply one-sided report”. It is possible the full hearings may be preceded by a submission calling for Magill to stand down.

Porter is represented by David Brecher and Alan Langleben, partners at Brecher & Co, who will be instructing Anthony Scrivener QC. She says she will take the battle to clear her name all the way to the European courts if necessary.

Bill Philips, a former officer on Magill's list, has been serving as a magistrate in Kent, but stood down last month. The Magistrates' Court Committee granted him “leave of absence” at his own request, until the auditor publishes his final report. Phillips' decision to stand down coincided with a story in the Kent Messenger which highlighted the irony of a man accused of political corruption standing in judgment of others.

Phillips, the council's former managing director, is represented by Ray Ambrose of Nabarro Nathanson and David Widdicombe QC.

Philip Vaughan, partner at Simmons & Simmons, is acting for Tory MP Barry Legg, former Conservative chief whip at Westminster council, and he is instructing Roger Toulson QC.

“The auditor is pursuing a very unusual course. He has misapplied a lot of law,” says Vaughan.

Three former councillors, David Weeks, Peter Hartley and Judith Warner, are understood to be unrepresented.

The objectors have been using Graham French, partner with London-based Alan Edwards & Co, and Andrew Arden QC. Gavin Millar and Alyson Kilpatrick are juniors working on the case.

Co-ordinator Neale Coleman says the objectors are trying to raise u200,000 to fund their legal battle.

“It would be difficult to imagine anyone acting for us on a pro bono basis. We are not talking about an eviction and a straightforward judicial review. It's immensely difficult,” he says.

See story page 1.