Richard Branson’s cable television company secretly paid for Scotland Yard officers investigating a multi-million pound fraud.
Virgin Media agreed to pay the police’s overtime bill on an expensive fraud inquiry
The deal has led to accusations that the police are now putting themselves up for hire.
Under the terms of the contract, Virgin Media agreed to pay the police’s overtime bill on an expensive fraud inquiry.
The deal – agreed in writing – also guaranteed the police authority a ‘cash donation’ of 25 per cent of any compensation awarded to Virgin following a successful conviction over the fraud which was costing the company an estimated £144 million a year.
Virgin refused to say how often it had put such contracts in place but said they were only used when appropriate.
Former senior officers and long-standing members of the Met police authority, however, said they had never heard of such deals.
The revelation of secret payments comes amid a growing row over the pressure forces are under following budget cuts that have seen police officer numbers fall by 6,000 in a year.
Tony Melville, chief constable of Gloucestershire, has also warned that further cuts would begin to affect front-line services.
Police can – and do – take payments from companies for special events such as crowd control at football matches or policing of airports.
But it appears highly unusual for private payments to be made by victims in active investigations.
Under the 1996 Police Act, a police force may provide “special police services” to “any person” subject to payment.
Virgin Media agreed to pay officers’ overtime at a total cost of £5,060 following a series of raids that exposed an international scam that was costing the company £144 million a year.
The deal also entitled the Metropolitan Police Authority (MPA) to receive a slice of any criminal compensation owed to Virgin, as victims of the crime.
The deal between Virgin Media and the Metropolitan Police Authority was signed as long ago as November 2008 but has only now come to light following the conviction of three men for their part in the fraud.
Its ringleader Munaf Ahmed Zinga was found guilty in the summer of importing and selling 400,000 set-top boxes that allowed viewers to watch paid-for channels for free.
Zinga, who was jailed for eight years, is now appealing against his conviction. His lawyers had argued that the case brought by Virgin in a private prosecution should not have gone ahead because the secret payments should have been ruled illegal.
Judge Inigo Bing ruled however that the payments including the “incentivisation scheme” were above board, allowing Zinga’s trial to go ahead at Snaresbrook Crown Court.
The details of the memorandum of understanding are contained in court transcripts obtained by The Sunday Telegraph.
They show that a deal was signed between a senior Virgin employee and the Met’s commercial partnership manager on Nov 25 2008, six days after police raided a series of premises in and around east London under the codename Operation Koblenz.
About 30 officers were deployed working alongside 18 investigators working for Virgin Media. About 5,000 set-top boxes and £90,000 in cash were seized in the raids.
The contract states: “It is agreed that subject to the following conditions the MPA accepts from the donor the unconditional offer of cash donations of every twenty five per cent of any money returned to Virgin media under a compensation order following successful asset recovery work.”
Virgin had begun its own private investigations following a tip-off that a company called Rayyonics was suspected of manufacturing and importing the illegal set-top boxes.
The boxes were made in South Korea and then shipped to the UK where they were sold on market stalls and elsewhere.
By August 2008, a team working for Virgin was running a surveillance operation on a number of premises linked to Rayyonics. Within a month, police had agreed to help Virgin with the “arrest/search phase” of its investigation.
Lawyers acting for Zinga, 40, from Plaistow in east London, had claimed that police were only interested in the case because of the amount of money a successful conviction might bring in – a claim vehemently denied in court.
Virgin insists – and a judge agreed with the media company – that financial arrangements were put in place, only after the arrests had been made.
Fraud investigations are lengthy and complex and it is not unusual for arrests to be made but police not to make enough progress for prosecutors to bring charges.
Zinga’s business partner Mukandun Pillai, 39, from Hainault in north east London, was jailed for six years while Salim Patel, from Plaistow, was sentenced to 12 months after admitting being the delivery driver. Two other men were found not guilty.
Last night, Liberty, the civil liberties group, expressed its concern over the payments and suggested that the case appeared to give wealthy victims of crime greater sway than poorer victims.
Shami Chakrabarti, director of Liberty, said: “Times may be tough but that’s no excuse for turning the police into hired guns for those wealthy enough to pursue crimes against them.
“Taking a percentage of a victim’s remuneration is bad enough but even worse is the thought of those in greatest need of protection being turned away in favour of those who can afford to pay.”
Jenny Jones, a member of the Metropolitan Police Authority – which oversees Scotland Yard – for 12 years until its abolition this January, said she was completely unaware of such payments.
Ms Jones, the green candidate for London mayor, said: “I have never heard of this. It’s like private policing and I am really shocked that somebody thought this was OK.”
Brian Paddick, a former Deputy Assistant Commissioner and now Liberal Democrat candidate in the mayoral race, said he too was unaware of such payments.
He said that in big fraud cases police do work alongside company investigators and that with scarce resources difficult decisions now had to be made.
The Metropolitan Police said it could not comment while Zinga’s appeal remained ongoing.
A spokeswoman said: “It is understood permission to appeal is being sought and it would be inappropriate for the MPS to comment at this stage.”
A Virgin Media spokesman said: “Following a joint operation between Virgin Media and the Metropolitan Police at Redbridge and New Scotland Yard, three men were successfully prosecuted for a large-scale commercial fraud.
“The defendants were found guilty of manufacturing, importing and supplying over 400,000 set-top boxes used to unlawfully access cable TV to dealers across the UK.
“In accordance with the Police Act 1996, we supported an additional overtime cost incurred by the Metropolitan Police.
“Pending the conclusion of confiscation proceedings, we will explore a compensation application against the defendants and we’ve offered a proportion of any compensation awarded to the Metropolitan Police Authority to support their ongoing work.”