Independent watchdogs should be investigating the incineration of classified files and documents from an undercover unit exposed as chaotic and possibly criminal, according to a former head of the Scottish Crime and Drugs Enforcement Agency (SCDEA).
The alleged cover-up at the now-defunct agency, once billed as Scotland’s FBI, is being “reviewed” by Police Scotland but Graeme Pearson, first head of the SCDEA, said the Police Investigations and Review Commissioner (PIRC) should be leading the inquiry.
Meanwhile, an MSP has also questioned the national force’s involvement in investigating the claims and said the officer charged with leading it should be replaced because of her history in undercover policing.
Mr Pearson, who had retired from the agency four years before the documents were destroyed in 2011, said the public interest would be best served by an independent inquiry.
He said: “I am surprised that the PIRC doesn’t seem to have a role in this at this stage, bringing some sort of independent scrutiny.”
The Commissioner, Kate Frame, can investigate any police matter if considered to be in the public interest, but has confirmed it has no involvement in the case.
Last week, the Scottish Police Authority were told a team officers led by Deputy Chief Constable Fiona Taylor would review the events described in court by a whistle-blowing officer, only known as Mrs K. She won her case after claiming she was frozen out of her job after reporting mismanagement of the finances of undercover operations being run against Scotland’s crime gangs.
Police Scotland are appealing but, in court, did not challenge her account of how senior officers reacted with fury, telling her “no one would ever know” and ordering her to buy a garden incinerator and petrol and burn the documents, some classified as sensitive and secret, found at an out-of-town office used by the unit.
John Finnie MSP, a former police officer who now chairs Holyrood’s influential policing committee, said DCC Taylor should replaced by another officer because of her previous job as the Metropolitan Police lead on the “much-delayed” public inquiry into undercover policing in England.
Mr Finnie said: “To ensure clear water between the officer tasked with looking into these serious allegations and their past roles, it would be better if the case were handed to another chief officer.”
Liam McArthur MSP, the Scottish Liberal Democrats’ justice spokesman, believes an external force will have to investigate. He said: “I have asked the Justice Secretary to provide an update on what scrutiny the Government is undertaking of the way in which these allegations are being investigated.
Nick McKerrell, lecturer in Law at Glasgow Caledonian University, said: “This in-house inquiry will not involve witness statements nor detailed investigation – both of which are required.”
One former police worker, with knowledge of the SCDEA at the time, said: “Anything less than an independent inquiry will allow Police Scotland and the Scottish Police Authority to be accused of whitewashing a whitewash, covering up a cover up. It is not about what happened but who ordered it, who knew about it and why it was done.”
DCC Taylor told a Scottish Police Authority (SPA) board meeting on Wednesday she has identified “a team of officers with relevant experience.” None have worked with the SCDEA. Her report is due by the end of March.
The Scottish Government said: “This is an operational policing matter and it is important to let Police Scotland and the SPA determine their response before considering any further options.”
The burning questions…
Police Scotland will report in a month’s time but critics have questioned if the review team is asking the right questions. So here are a few suggestions.
- Which SCDEA officers were signatories to the bank accounts being run by the Special Operations Unit?
- Which SCDEA officers signed off the accounts of the unit?
- Which offficer ordered the incineration of the sensitive material found at the unit when its finances were exposed as chaotic and possibly criminal, and which officers knew about it?
- Was the material covered by the official Protective Marking Scheme?
- Was burning it contrary to standard operating procedures?
- Did officers charged with burning it raise concern at the time that some of it was classified as sensitive and secret?
- Were they told to burn it anyway?
- Was this done before the possibility of fraud or criminality at the unit was reported to the Procurator Fiscal?
- Were the five officers tasked with burning the material paid up to six hours overtime?
- After buying a garden incinerator at B&Q in Paisley, and matches and petrol at a BP petrol station at Glasgow Airport, were the officers reimbursed through expenses?
- Both Strathclyde and Grampian forces voiced serious concerns about how the SCDEA investigated the collapse of the unit at the time so was that internal inquiry fair-minded, rigorous and transparent?
- Should the current review team ignore it and start again by speaking to officers and former officers directly involved?
“I have no idea what you’re talking about”
The officer in charge of the Scottish Crime and Drug Enforcement Agency when confidential and sensitive documents were incinerated says he knows nothing about it.
Asked about the chaos exposed at an undercover unit in 2011 and the ensuing claims of cover-up, Gordon Meldrum, who was director of the SCDEA at the time, said he is “completely in the dark about it”.
A whistleblower, known in court as Mrs K, raised the alarm when she discovered an office used to manage finances of covert police operations against organised criminals was a shambles.
The offices, which looked as if they had been “ransacked”, were scattered with documents, bank cards, credit card statements and cash not linked to any operations.
The documents were incinerated before the possibility of fraud was reported by the SCDEA to prosecutors.
Contacted last week and asked about the events of 2011, the civil action brought by Mrs K, the exposure of the apparent cover-up, the ensuing parliamentary questions, and the ongoing Police Scotland review, Mr Meldrum said: “I’ve no idea what you’re talking about. I’ve no knowledge of what you’re talking to me about so I’m not prepared to make any comment on it.”
When asked if he was aware of the Court of Session judgement in favour of Mrs K, Mr Meldrum said: “I’m no longer resident in Scotland so my knowledge of what happens in the media in Scotland is pretty poor because I don’t follow it.”