Lancashire County Council leader accused of deliberate campaign to intimidate witness in corruption probe
Lancashire County Council's leader was involved in a 'deliberate and concerted campaign' to intimidate a key witness in a corruption probe, according to police documents to seek authorisation for his arrest.
A newly-published court judgement reveals police claims of intimidating behaviour from Coun Geoff Driver, who is currently on police bail.
He was arrested along with three others – former County Hall chief executive Phil Halsall, David McElhinney, the chief executive of the now defunct One Connect and another former LCC chief executive Ged Fitzgerald – in May last year on suspicion of perverting the course of justice and witness intimidation.
Mr Fitzgerald, who is currently suspended from his role as chief executive of Liverpool Council, attempted to seek a judicial review over a judge’s decision to grant permission to search his home and arrest him last May. His case has been dismissed by Lord Justice Gross and Mr Justice Nicol, sitting at the High Court in London.
Their judgement reveals key details of the long-running investigation, which the judges described as into “corruption in local government” into the four men, including;
++ Allegations that data from seven laptops, six iPads and iPhones had been deliberately wiped during the police investigation and a desktop computer belonging to Mr McElhinney was ordered to be destroyed;
++ Allegations that Mr Halsall had advised Coun Driver to change the properties of any Word documents he sent in to PDFs, in order to disguise their origins;
++ Allegations that Coun Driver attended a meeting at LCC that he had been advised he should not attend, and attempted to remove documents.
All four men, who remain on bail, are at the centre of a criminal investigation linked to One Connect Limited - the now defunct partnership between LCC and telecom giants BT.
Warrants granted at Preston Crown Court on May 19 last year by Judge Robert Altham, authorised police to search the four men’s homes for “any electronic storage devices including but not exclusively mobile phones, computers, lap tops, iPads and any other digital or electronic storage devices.”
Lancashire Police’s original application for the warrants, said: “Circumstances essentially revolve around recent activity by Mr Driver, including his sending emails to a principal witness in the wider case, Ian Young (LCC’s senior lawyer) which led to Mr Young making a complaint to police alleging a deliberate and concerted campaign to intimidate him as a key witness in both criminal and ongoing civil proceedings linked to the criminal case.”
It adds: “Evidence has now been gathered which shows that between 2013 and 2015, Mr Driver in collusion with Philip Hassall, David McElhinney and Gerard Fitzgerald, was involved in activity directed toward a number of principal witnesses... which was clearly designed to intimidate, belittle and undermine them both professionally and, crucially, as witnesses in the investigation.”
The police alleged Mr Driver used his position as leader of the Conservative party group, and, at times, leader of the council “to assist Mr Halsall and Mr McElhinney in the potential construction of their defences” and claims Mr Fitzgerald, Mr McElhinney and Mr Halsall were all close personal friends.
The judgement revealed officers had been granted restricted access to Mr Driver’s email accounts in March 2017, and that police claimed Mr Halsall had advised Geoff Driver to change the properties of any Word document he sent into PDF, in order to disguise its origins.
The force’s application alleged wilful and deliberate acts by Halsall and McElhinney to use Geoff Driver as a “source of information” and alleges his attendance at an LCC meeting on September 27, 2013 was to “glean information” concerning the internal inquiry and the appointment of a designated independent person to conduct it. It also reveals Geoff Driver submitted multiple Freedom of Information requests concerning Operation Sheridan, had made a complaint to the IPCC concerning the Operation and had also put down a Notice of Motion for discussion at LCC. After hearing about email evidence at the hearing last May, Judge Altham said it indicated that “Mr Driver is in cahoots with the others, providing not only information but also providing challenge to people who can cause difficulties in the course of this investigation”.
He concluded there were reasonable grounds for believing that the warrants would yield material of substantial value to the investigation and was satisfied that it was in the public interest “to allow police officers to enter four domestic properties.”
Judge Altham was required to consider whether other means of obtaining this evidence had been considered but agreed that would not be practicable because there had been in this case ”careful steps taken to cover their tracks.”
The two judges sitting at the High Court rejected Mr Fitzgerald’s bid for a judicial review, concluding that “the efforts of Messrs Driver, Halsall and McElhinny gave reasonable grounds for belief that there had been a conspiracy to pervert”.
Lancashire Police’s investigation is ongoing and the four men are due to answer bail on May 22. They all deny any wrongdoing and have not been charged.
Lancashire Police, Coun Driver, Mr Halsall and Hogan Brown (Mr Fitzgerald’s solicitors) declined to comment. Mr McElhinney could not be reached.