REVEALED: Legal bill for Crown Prosecution Service in Operation Sheridan investigation involving ex-Lancashire County Council leader Geoff Driver and former chief executives

The Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) has incurred a seven-figure bill for legal advice over a police investigation involving former Lancashire County Council leader Geoff Driver, it has emerged.

Monday, 8th November 2021, 8:51 pm

The organisation has spent just over £1m on external legal counsel in the past five years - but its total legal costs to date are likely to be far higher, because the figure that has been released does not factor in time expended on the case by the agency's own directly-employed internal lawyers.

The CPS is continuing to consider a file of evidence passed to it by Lancashire Police back in August 2018 in relation to the force’s Operation Sheridan probe into allegations of financial irregularities at County Hall, which now date back eight years.

The enquiry was launched after concerns were raised over the awarding of a £5m fleet maintenance contract to the now defunct One Connect joint venture between Lancashire County Council and BT.

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Former Lancashire County Council leader Geoff Driver was one of four men arrested in May 2017 on suspicion of conspiracy to pervert the course of justice and witness intimidation - and the Crown Prosecution Service has been considering a file of material on the matter since August 2018 (image: Neil Cross)

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Mr. Driver has previously told the Local Democracy Reporting Service (LDRS) that he was advised by police in March 2016 that they had “determined my innocence” regarding that matter – two-and-a-half years after the investigation had begun.

However, just over 12 months later, the veteran Conservative politician and three other men were arrested on suspicion of conspiracy to pervert the course of justice and witness intimidation. It was then in excess of a further year before the file on Mr. Driver – together with former Lancashire County Council chief executives Ged Fitzgerald and Phil Halsall and former One Connect chief executive David McElhinney – was handed to the CPS for consideration.

Now, more than three years on, there has still been no decision about whether to prosecute any of the four individuals over the allegations which led to their arrests in 2017. None of them has ever been charged in relation to the wider fraud investigation and all deny any wrongdoing.

A CPS response to a freedom of information request (FOI) – seen by the LDRS – shows that the organisation had racked up £1.05m in external legal fees connected to Operation Sheridan by the end of July this year.

Some of that money – totalling around £65,000 – was spent during the two financial years prior to the one in which the Sheridan file was submitted by police. In the 2018/19 year, when the dossier was handed over, £55,000 was spent on legal counsel.

However, the expenditure then began to increase markedly and peaked at almost £600,000 during 2020/21. In just the first four months of the current financial year, £170,000 was spent on external lawyers.

The CPS said in its response to the FOI that it “does not record time spent by internal lawyers, paralegals and administrative staff on a case-by-case basis”. The expenditure on external legal counsel also relates only to bills that have already been paid, rather than just issued.

A separate freedom of information request to Lancashire Police seeking the force’s own Operation Sheridan costs, which was submitted by Mr. Driver himself, was declined on the basis that it could be harmful both to any subsequent court case and also the ongoing investigation – by potentially alerting suspects to police activity.

The police response stated: “Due to information previously released regarding officer numbers and costs, publication of further figures at this stage would enable the potential costs of the investigation to date to be established. It is considered that this would have a prejudicial effect on the investigation and in particular the rights of the individuals concerned to a fair trial.

“Furthermore, should the costs change throughout the course of the investigation, inferences may be drawn as to changes in the status of the investigation resulting in the investigation being undermined. For example, should the costs increase then those who are potentially implicated may deduce that the force is increasingly interested in their activities which could in turn lead to evasive action.”

Mr. Driver, who is 76, says he has appealed that decision to the Information Commissioner.

Back in January 2017 – the then Lancashire Police and Crime Commissioner Clive Grunshaw revealed that the cost to the force of Operation Sheridan up to that point – after just over three years of investigation – amounted to £2m. Twenty-two staff officers and staff were reported to be working on the enquiry at that time.

When approached by the LDRS about its expenditure during consideration of the Sheridan file, a spokesperson for the CPS said: “We have received a file of material from Lancashire Police on which we are now conducting a review, as well as advising the police on further reasonable lines of enquiry.

“Whilst the review and investigation process are ongoing, it is not appropriate for us to comment any further.”

The LDRS understands that it is common practice for the CPS to obtain external legal advice in complex cases. The organisation has previously revealed that the Operation Sheridan case is being dealt with by its specialist fraud division.

Meanwhile, a spokesperson for Lancashire Police said that the bail status of four Operation Sheridan suspects had been amended to being “released under investigation” back in August 2020.

They added: “Sheridan remains an active investigation involving serious allegations and is pending a decision from the CPS as to whether or not current suspects will be charged with one or more criminal offences. The change in bail status is not an indication as to the outcome of the eventual charging decision.”

Mr. Driver, who retired from politics at the local elections back in May, told the LDRS: “I am entirely innocent of the allegations the police make and it is most frustrating and upsetting that this matter is still unresolved after all this time.”

His arrest in 2017 came shortly after the Tories retook control at County Hall following local elections – and days before he was officially reinstated for the second of two four-year stints as leader of Lancashire County Council. It was during the first of those that the One Connect joint venture deal with BT was signed in 2011.

Police began investigating the alleged financial irregularities in September 2013, four months after local elections in that year had returned a Labour administration at County Hall. The authority pulled the plug on the venture in 2014.

Lancashire County Council’s external auditors have not certified the authority’s annual audit since Operation Sheridan was launched. In their latest assessment of the authority for 2020/21, auditors Grant Thornton echoed comments made in previous years that they were unable to issue a “certificate of completion” until “we have completed our consideration of a matter brought to our attention by the authority in 2013”.

However, the audit findings report – which was presented to the authority’s audit, risk and governance committee last month - goes on to state that Grant Thornton are “satisfied that this matter does not have a material effect on the financial statements”.

CROWN PROSECUTION SERVICE COUNSEL COSTS ON OPERATION SHERIDAN

2016/17 – £14,231.50

2017/18 – £51,300.01

2018/19 – £55,620.50

2019/20 – £159,516.23

2020/21 – £599,682.10

2021/22 – £170,455.80

TOTAL: £1,050,806.14

Source: CPS Freedom of Information response