Leveson Inquiry hears of suspected Devon and Cornwall police corruption claims
Westcountry officials including 11 police officers, five support staff, prison guards and benefits agency employees were suspected of corruption or leaking confidential information to private detectives, the Leveson Inquiry has heard.
Devon and Cornwall Police's 2002 probe into unauthorised data checks sparked two further national inquiries into the activities of private investigators selling information to members of the Press.
The force's Operation Reproof resulted in six men – two serving police officers, two former officers and two private investigators – being charged in 2004 although the case later collapsed in the courts.
But evidence submitted by Devon and Cornwall Police to the Leveson Inquiry, set up in response to revelations that the now-defunct News of the World hacked murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler's phone after she disappeared in 2002, showed that dozens of officials came under suspicion.
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In his statement to the inquiry, Detective Chief Superintendent Russ Middleton said: "The number of persons who had been identified as being suspected of committing offences ranging from corruption to computer misuse and Data Protection Act Offences, were as follows: nine serving police officers from Devon and Cornwall, five serving support staff from Devon and Cornwall, six retired police officers, two serving police officers from Dorset Police.
"The scoping exercise also revealed the alleged infiltration of other agencies where confidential information had potentially been revealed illicitly. These included the Prison Service, Housing and Benefits Agency, British Telecom, Orange Telecom, and the South Western Electricity Board (SWEB)."
Mr Middleton, the deputy senior investigating officer on Operation Reproof, also confirmed that confidential information on two MPs had also been found during the two-year inquiry.
However, he said there was "no information or evidence of any involvement with the press or media".
Courts papers obtained by The Guardian last summer, apparently showed that Gordon Brown, then Chancellor, was one of those who had been targeted by illegal checks on the Police National Computer (PNC).
According to police interview transcripts, former Exeter-based Detective Constable Philip Diss, who died last year, carried out the PNC check in late 2000.
The search using the then Chancellor's full name – James Gordon Brown – and his date of birth ended with "no trace".
Mr Middleton said much of the information was given to private investigators who then traded it on to others including national and international companies such as insurance firms and lawyers.
Mr Diss, from Exeter, was accused of misconduct in public office by making unauthorised disclosure of data to co- accused Alan Stidwill. CID officer Robert Cornish, of Budleigh Salterton, East Devon, faced the same charge.
Peter Hill, from Sidmouth, a retired detective who had gone on to become East Devon District Council investigations and fraud control officer, was charged with disclosing information from the Department for Work and Pensions computer system to Mr Stidwill.
Mr Stidwill, who retired from Devon and Cornwall Police in 1994 and subsequently established SAS Investigations in Exmouth, was accused of procuring Mr Diss, Mr Cornish, and Mr Hill to commit misconduct in public office.
Andre Laloi, of Horley, Sussex, who was alleged to have procured Mr Diss to commit misconduct, faced five charges.
Christopher Dewse, of Crawley, Sussex, was charged with four counts of obtaining information and one count of procuring Mr Diss to commit misconduct.
The case spent almost two years in the courts but the men were cleared when it collapsed in 2006 at Gloucester Crown Court.
Mr Middleton's statement explained: "Having listened to the arguments His Honour Judge Darlow provided a judgment that in his view, under these circumstances, he did not regard the act of a police officer accessing the PNC and providing the information to an ex-colleague, as a serious matter that amounted to misconduct in public office.
"His Honour Judge Darlow stated that in his view the defendants had no case to answer if the prosecution proceeded with the charge of misconduct in public office.
"The judge informed the prosecution that he could not prevent the prosecution case going ahead for other offences, but emphasised his position.
"Following the ruling made by the judge, the prosecution, through the Crown Prosecution Service and counsel, applied to the Attorney General for some guidance in relation to the ruling to see if it could be overturned, however that was not successful."
Mr Middleton said disciplinary action was later taken against five police officers and two civilian staff from Devon and Cornwall, as well as two officers from Dorset. The results of those hearings are not known.