NCA tipped off billionaire it was investigating for alleged corruption about media interest in case
COMMENT & OPINION: The below is the honestly held opinion of the author based on the available facts:
In August 2019 I was in the party resort of Kavos on Corfu trying to track down a serial rapist who had allegedly been freed early from prison despite previous claims he would spend about 50 years in jail.
Known as the Beast of Kavos, he had mainly preyed on British tourists and resort workers.
While catching up on news back home on my laptop in a local café I spotted a press release from the National Crime Agency (NCA) entitled "£100m Account Freezing Orders (AFOs) are largest granted to NCA."
The agency was beating its chest about being granted freezing orders on eight bank accounts containing more than £100 million, which it said was suspected to have "derived from bribery and corruption in an overseas nation."
The sum was "the largest amount of money frozen using AFOs since they were introduced under the Criminal Finances Act 2017," the release went on.
Apart from the huge amount of money involved, the story on its own was pretty dry and left more questions than answers.
Who were the owners of the accounts? That would be the real story I thought as I sweated under the Kavos sun.
Helpfully, the NCA had included the date and venue of the court hearing at Westminster Magistrates' Court in the release.
And, also sat in my inbox was the court list for the day in question, which would likely include the missing names.
So, I decided to park the story until my return to the UK, hoping no other journalists would tie the press release and the court list together and rob me of a scoop.
With that in mind, I closed the laptop and continued my more pressing enquiries in Kavos, which included discovering the whereabouts of the rapist and more pressingly, investigating its many bars that evening.
Party Town: Bars along the Kavos strip (EN&I)
It turns out the "Beast" had been released and when I got back it made for quite a big story that led to an outcry from one of his victims.
I then turned my attention to the NCA release and court lists.
Scanning the list for the relevant day it soon became obvious who the account holders were.
There were four people, all close relatives of a billionaire called Malik Riaz Hussain, 67, (top image) one of the wealthiest property tycoons in Pakistan, and some businesses, including one registered offshore in the British Virgin Islands.
The bank accounts in question were held in branches of the Emirates NBD Bank PJSC, owned by the Dubai Government, which is one of the largest banking groups in the Middle East.
The court listed some of the people as residing in villas in the Emirate Hills area of Dubai, a luxury gated community, said to contain some of the most expensive real estate in Dubai.
The NCA release said the freezing orders followed one for £20 million secured an individual in December 2018 at the same court.
I hazarded a guess that must have been Mr Hussain himself.
Armed with this information, I contacted the NCA press office and asked it to confirm the names I had were the account holders referred to in its release.
The response came back that the NCA would not be confirming anything and I asked what the issue was as the names were a matter of public record on the court list.
A further response pointed out to me that the hearing had been an ex parte application, which meant the account holders were not forewarned that it was taking place and had been unable to contest the applications.
I left it at that, as I had the names and did not need the agency's confirmation.
A few days later I was contacted by email by a press officer for the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) saying he was aware I was working on the story about the NCA account freezing orders and asking if I would call him.
He said the MoJ had been contacted by a lawyer representing the account holders and he asked how I obtained their names.
This was one of the most peculiar phone calls I have had about a story in 18 years of journalism.
I had not spoken to anyone about the proposed story apart from the NCA press office, so my initial response was that only the NCA could have informed the lawyers of my interest in the case.
I found this perplexing.
Why would the NCA want to tip off someone it was supposed to be investigating impartially about a journalist sniffing around the investigation?
What remit would there be within the NCA to look out for reputational issues of subjects under investigation, I thought.
Shortly after, the lawyer in question made contact with a false allegation that the names had been "leaked" to me and under no circumstances should any of the account holders be named.
The MoJ press officer had mentioned something about a data breach, but when I explained they were just from the court list, he seemed as puzzled as me about this unfolding situation.
I asked the NCA press office to confirm if the agency had tipped of the lawyer about my interest in the case.
But, I was concerned I could be fobbed off so decided to make an official complaint to the NCA professional standards department, which is responsible for officer conduct.
I asked in the complaint for it to be established who, if anyone, at the agency had done this and why.
I suggested that claims of a data breach were false and the NCA could have established this from the court.
I also stressed that even if there had been a data breach by the court, it would not have been the responsibility of the NCA to take action, as it would have been for the court to do so.
I argued that being responsible for investigating the most serious and organised criminals, the agency could not afford to make knee-jerk reactions such as this in response to situations.
I also suggested that to provide my name and email to the lawyer was a clear breach of data protection by the NCA.
An officer was assigned the complaint and duly looked into it.
In December 2019 the NCA announced the result of its investigations into Mr Hussain.
The case had concluded with a secret out of court settlement that saw Mr Hussain surrender a total of
PROCEEDS: The mansion at Hyde Park Place (NCA)
£140 million held across the nine bank accounts and a £50 million mansion overlooking Hyde Park.
The settlement did not mean there had been any finding of guilt, the NCA said, and the money would be returned to the state of Pakistan, said the agency that would not be commenting any further.
However, it soon emerged in the Pakistan press that a secret deal reached with the Pakistan government had allowed Mr Hussain to use the money himself in Pakistan to pay debts his property development company owed to the Supreme Court following a land dispute.
A video later emerged from a Pakistani investigator who said he had filmed Mr Hussain meeting outside the mansion with the Pakistan Government official who had commented on the arrangement.
The meetings took place in the days after the NCA announced the settlement, the video maker said.
Far from being a successful case for the NCA, it appeared to be a disaster at the expense of British taxpayers, that had been more a debt-collecting exercise for the Pakistan Supreme Court on the NCA.
Any scent of further criminal investigation appeared to have been finished off by the secret settlement, and the arrangement appeared to have done nothing for the people of Pakistan either.
The NCA refused to field any questions on the fact Mr Hussain had seemingly benefited from the "surrendered" money in Pakistan.
The twist had also put a new slant on the actions of the NCA in tipping of the lawyers about my interest in the case in my opinion.
I asked the officer handling my complaint to also look into the wider circumstances of the case, including the outcome, against the tip off to the lawyers.
By early 2020 I was sent his report which confirmed the NCA investigating officer on the account freezing order case was responsible for alerting the lawyer.
He pretty much accepted everything I said in the complaint, but still did not uphold the it.
He explained the investigating officer had contacted the court following my press enquiry and the person who took the call at the court couldn't confirm if I had been sent the information officially.
Yet, instead of waiting for this confirmation from the court, the NCA officer consulted with senior managers, and it was decided he should immediately inform the lawyer of the account holders.
He did this because they "believed" that there had been a serious data breach and it was a reasonable response in those circumstances, he argued.
Furthermore, releasing my details was not a data breach as it was a necessary pat of the action, he said.
The complaints officer conceded that the NCA later established there had been no data breach, but still stood by the action taken.
VIDEO: A still from the film apparently showing Mr Hussain meeting with Pakistan officials outside mansion (YouTube)
It was not appropriate to look into the wider issues I was told.
The complaint procedure came with an appeal right to the NCA, which I used, arguing the complaints officer reached the wrong decision, as he had accepted the facts of my complaint, so it should have been upheld.
After several months in mid 2020, I received the appeal outcome.
It again was not upheld, although the appeal officer did volunteer that the NCA was aware of the video about the apparent meetings, but did not say anymore than that.
The appeal officer said that I had exhausted the appeal process, and I could not take it to the Independent Office of Police Conduct (IOPC) as the officer in question (a Grade 3 Operations manager in charge of the NCA's biggest ever freezing order case) was not of a high enough rank.
I decided to appeal to the IOPC anyway.
I also made a separate complaint to the Information Commissioner's Office (ICO) just about the alleged data breach in passing my details to the lawyer.
In October 2020 the ICO sent its decision, which upheld my complaint.
The ICO officer wrote: "I am of the view that the NCA has not acted in line with reasonable expectations in
"I am also of the view that the NCA can take learnings from this matter to help ensure a similar situation doesn’t occur again.
"Firstly, it is my view that the NCA did not need to take the action it did on the concern held regarding the information you had about the subjects of the freezing order.
"This is because, as has been noted above, any action would be for the court to take as the controller in this instance.
"It appears that it would have been reasonable for the NCA to advise the court of its concerns so that the court could decide on the appropriate steps, if any, to take upon hearing those concerns.
Secondly, it is my view that it would not be within your reasonable expectations for your name to be disclosed to the solicitor in this instance."
The ICO officer added that the NCA, once it found out there had been no data breach, should have contacted the lawyer to update them.
"This is because when your data was shared with the solicitor, the NCA advised that they were making enquiries into how you acquired the information.
As such, the NCA should have clarified this matter with the solicitor to ensure that the data shared was accurate (not misleading as to any matter of fact) and up-to-date," they said.
The decision continued: "The NCA should ensure that it only takes action on concerns regarding data where it is the controller for the data.
"By acting on a concern that fell to the responsibility of the court, the NCA has acted outside of
reasonable expectations in this instance.
I am also of the view that the NCA should ensure that going forward, all staff are aware of their data protection obligations and ensure that if information does need to be shared with third parties, that only the necessary and relevant information is shared.
"This will help reduce the risk of excessive data being shared in the future."
I forwarded the ICO finding to the IOPC, which was still considering my appeal.
The IOPC later concluded that the NCA should record and consider only my part of the complaint about data protection.
The IOPC said I could not complain about the wider issues of the case because I had not been affected by them.
The NCA did record the data protection element of the complaint earlier this year, but then "disapplied" it, saying it was an abuse of process to try to get an old complaint examined again.
I have appealed this decision to the IOPC and await a response.
The NCA still refuses to comment on the outcome of the settlement with Mr Hussain, even though unanswered questions remain, including how did the British taxpayer benefit from this outcome?
Despite this, it even highlighted the settlement as an exemplary case study of the use of civil court orders to deal with suspected money laundering in a section on bribery and corruption in its 2020 National Strategic Assessment of Serious and Organised Crime published last April, which said the money from the sale of the mansion will be returned to Pakistan once sold.
But, another outstanding question is does Mr Hussain even have a deadline to sell the Hyde Park property by?
As I exclusively revealed this week, it remains registered to his offshore company more than 15 months after the agreement was reached.