Details of the e-mails were passed to the media and Westminster City Council. Soon after £25 million of assets were frozen, Dame Shirley offered to pay £12.3 million to settle the case. Dame Shirley, as Tory leader of Westminster council during the 1980s, 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.
Allegations of gerrymandering ended with an auditor ordering her and fellow councillors to pay a £31.6 million surcharge. That was upheld by the House of Lords, but Dame Shirley maintained that she was too poor to pay.
With interest and legal fees increasing the surcharge to £42 million, the dispute continued until her son’s e-mails revealed that she was offering to bankroll him. Stanford, however, had not set out to find the truth about Dame Shirley’s finances, but was spying on her son to oust him from the board of Redbus, the data company.
When he saw Mr Porter’s e-mails, he wrote to his accomplice: “Where do we go from here? Do we try to blackmail him into resigning from the board or do we go to the institutional shareholders or the press with it?” The two men had set up Redbus together, with Stanford investing much of the £29 million he made from the sale of Demon.
In June 2002, after falling out with Mr Porter, Stanford resigned from Redbus but kept his 30 per cent shareholding and began plotting a return to the board. Software was installed that ensured Mr Porter’s e-mails were copied to an account set up by Stanford’s accomplice, George Liddell, a private investigator.
The electronic spying amounted to “unlawful and unauthorised interception of electronic communications” under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA) 2000. Sarah Whitehouse, for the prosecution, said: “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.”
Among the messages were “privileged legal documents”, personal e-mails and business memos. Mr Porter and fellow board members realised what was happening only when details of a meeting was posted on a website within 15 minutes.
Stanford and Liddell were cleared of conspiring to blackmail Dame Shirley and her son, but both admitted unauthorised interception of e-mails.
Judge Geoffrey Rivlin, QC, who sentenced the men at Southwark Crown Court in London yesterday, said that the offence was an unjustified breach of confidentiality.
He gave them both a six-month suspended prison sentence and ordered Stanford to pay a £20,000 fine.
The judge said: “It is essential people, in whatever walks of life, and, of course, those running important businesses, should know that the integrity of their confidential communication should be respected.”
David Martin-Sperry, counsel for Liddell, said his client’s decision to take material to Westminster council’s lawyers had benefited many people.
Helen McDowell, Stanford’s solicitor, said that he would appeal.
WHAT'S BANNED AND WHAT'S NOT
Definitely unlawful: listening to the conversation by intercepting the signal