The internet pioneer Clifford Stanford escaped a jail term today after pleading guilty to intercepting sensitive e-mails that triggered Dame Shirley Porter’s decision to pay a multimillion-pound surcharge resulting from the homes-for-votes scandal.
Stanford, who founded Demon Internet, had hoped to use the confidential material in a boardroom battle with John Porter, the former Westminster council leader’s son and chairman of another company founded by Stanford.
When he and his private investigator realised the significance of what they had obtained, they handed it to lawyers for the local authority.
Southwark Crown Court heard some of it also found its way to the press, "triggering a series of events which led to the council settlement". As a result Dame Shirley, who until then had claimed to have just £300,000 assets, agreed to settle the 15-year scandal.
Stanford, 50, who had admitted one count of "unlawful and unauthorised interception of electronic communications", was given a six-month prison sentence suspended for two years and fined £20,000. The private investigator, George Liddell, also received a suspended sentence.
As Tory leader she had overseen the selling of council homes in marginal wards to people thought likely to vote Conservative, while the homeless were placed in asbestos-ridden tower blocks in safe Labour wards.
The subsequent dispute spanned years, during which time the surcharge she had been ordered to pay ballooned to £42 million due to interest and legal fees. After a website published extracts from the intercepted e-mails, Dame Shirley handed over a £12.3 million "final settlement".
Both Stanford, who lives in Belgium, and Liddell, 46, from Nether Winchendon, Buckinghamshire, were formally cleared of conspiring to blackmail Dame Shirley and her son after the Crown offered no evidence.
Sarah Whitehouse, prosecuting, told the court that Stanford, who made £29 million from the sale of Demon in the late nineties, had been deputy chairman of Red Bus, a worldwide data storage company he had also founded.
Some time afterwards Mr Porter made a "substantial investment" in the operation and was appointed chairman. "But on June 20, 2002, following a falling out between the two, Stanford resigned from the company, retaining a 30-per cent shareholding.
"However, it appears that he was determined to regain his seat on the board of the company and began plotting with Liddell as to how he could achieve that aim," Ms Whitehouse continued. "It seems from e-mail exchanges between them his idea was to collect as much information as he could to discredit Mr Porter and force his resignation."
The court heard that a device called a "mirror wall" was inserted into the company’s computer system with the help of a company insider. "The effect was that any e-mail sent to Mr Porter’s account and members of his staff was automatically copied at the same time to a special account set up by Liddell especially for that purpose," counsel said.
"As a result of that a vast amount of information was copied to that e-mail account, including information about John Porter and his family and his bank account details."
Amongst them were "privileged legal documents", personal e-mails between him and his family and a variety of business memos. The barrister told the court that the information ended up being published on a website.
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