This is the blog of British investigative journalist Jason Lewis.
It features articles from my time as Investigations Editor of the Sunday Telegraph and Whitehall and Security Editor of the Mail on Sunday.
I specialise in writing on intelligence and security matters, human and civil rights and the activities of the British State.
Michael Brown: From £1.6m villa to prison yard, downfall of the Lib Dem fraudster
A tip-off from The Sunday Telegraph led to the arrest of convicted £36m conman Michael Brown in the Dominican Republic.
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Behind bars: Michael Brown in Higuey police station after being arrested in Punta CanaPhoto: Chris Bott
By Jason Lewis and Paul Thompson in Higuey, Dominican Republic
7:30AM GMT 15 Jan 2012
The knock at the door did not unduly disturb the man relaxing on the terrace of the £1.6 million villa overlooking the Caribbean.
Even when his wife opened it to discover members of the Dominican Republic’s armed police outside, Darren Patrick Nally was unfazed.
He was sure his secret was safe: he was not Nally, a man who said he was an Irish singer and had already been detained in prison on charges of failing to pay his debts.
In fact he was Michael Brown, a 45-year-old British fraudster whose web of lies and deceit had made him millions – £2.4 million of which he had donated to the Liberal Democrats for their 2005 election campaign, becoming their biggest single donor.
As he was arrested for unpaid rent at a former apartment, Brown was nonchalant. At the police station he told the local assistant prosecutor, Elizabeth Rijo, that he would pay the debt and be back home in time for dinner.
But then she dropped a bombshell: she knew his secret. For a long time Brown was silent, then said simply: “Yes, I am Michael Brown.”
And with that his years on the run from British justice and his victims had come to an abrupt end.
This weekend, Brown is surveying the ruins of his life of crime from a prison cell in Higüey; there is much to survey. His activities have taken him from Britain to Spain, Switzerland and America, and finally to the Dominican Republic, where he arrived three and a half years ago on a false passport – in the name of a criminal and supplied by a convicted drug smuggler with links to organised crime – in a country that, conveniently, has no extradition treaty with Britain.
Brown was then on the run, having been sentenced in his absence to seven years in prison for stealing more than £36 million in bogus deals with wealthy investors in Britain, much of which has never been recovered. One victim, Martin Edwards, the former chairman of Manchester United, lost £8 million.
In the comfort of London’s Caledonian Club he would sweet-talk potential clients, who could see his obvious success: a flat in Mayfair, a home in Hampstead, a fleet of prestige cars and a £400,000 ocean-going yacht. His personal jet ferried him between London and Spain, and was made available to the Lib Dems.
In April 2006, a year after the £2.4 million donation to the political party – and having helped the Lib Dems to their most successful election since the war – Brown was arrested at his Majorca villa over fraud.
He had convinced his victims that he was the Gordonstoun and St Andrews-educated son of a lord. They believed he used US security services to vet potential investors for his scheme, which was run from an office in Switzerland.
In fact he was from Glasgow, had failed his maths O-Grade, run a string of failed businesses, and was wanted for cheque fraud in Florida. The Swiss “office” was a room above an Irish pub in Zurich.
Free on bail during his trial, he obtained the false passport – which got him through Gatwick Airport – and fled to the Dominican Republic.
It had seemed like a safe haven, but Brown made a critical error: he apparently could not stop ripping people off. He is understood to have racked up hundreds of thousands of pounds in debts on luxury villas and expensive cars, persuading local investors to hand over cash for a succession of fictitious business deals.
Facing final demands for payment from landlords or threats from disgruntled business partners, Brown would simply pack up in the middle of the night and disappear.
One bogus deal involved shares in a non-existent Russian oil refinery which he said involved Boris Berezovsky, the Russian billionaire businessman. Berezovsky knew nothing about it and the investors lost their cash.
A villa owner leased him her large property after she was told he was a wealthy and reclusive composer for rock stars. Brown is said to have gone without paying thousands of pounds in rent and departed so hastily that he left his clothes behind.
Last February he was held for four months in the infamous La Victoria prison on the outskirts of the capital Santa Domingo, over a business dispute sparked by a £1.5 million deal. Crucially, the authorities did not know his identity was fake and he was freed.
Then, last September, The Sunday Telegraph told the island’s Interpol chief, Colonel Cabrera Sarita, that Nally was in fact Brown. The colonel entered the details into the national police computer and assured us he would be apprehended.
It did not happen immediately.
Brown was living at the six-bedroom villa he had purchased a few months ago in the gated Arrecife development at the vast Puntacana Resort, where his neighbours included fashion designer Oscar de la Renta.
Situated on the La Cana golf course, it must have felt like a dream hideaway for a man who went on the run from Britain with just two golf bags. The villa also has its own snooker room, decorated with maps of the Caribbean, and an extensive covered terrace leading down to the swimming pool.
He should have been able to relax – and he did. But 10 days ago, his luck ran out. Brown had apparently failed to pay a local businessman £54,000 in rent on another apartment, and the man, who was well-connected politically, went to the police, leading to the knock on the door.
Miss Rijo, based at Punta Cana police station on the eastern tip of the island, was at the head of a squad of six armed officers who were met by Sharon Brown.
The prosecutor said Brown was relaxed – at first.
“He was not worried at all, and when I told him why we were there he said he would settle the matter quickly and pay the money that he owed,” she told The Sunday Telegraph.
“Once at the station he called his lawyer and again was not worried. He said the matter would be settled quickly. 'I can pay the money,’ he said. 'This will be settled soon and I can go home.’
“Then I told him I knew he was wanted by Interpol over a large theft in the UK.”
Brown’s whole mood changed and for some time he did not say anything.
“He realised I knew who he was,” said Miss Rijo. “Then he told me, 'Yes, I am Michael Brown.’”
Last week, Brown refused to answer questions as he was paraded in front of The Sunday Telegraph at the police station. A local judge has now remanded Brown in custody for a year and he has been transferred to the main prison in Higüey.
He is being held while the Dominican Republic’s national police investigate his crimes on the island – and until he is deported to Britain. Although there is no extradition treaty, he could be deported because he entered the country under a false identity, which is a breach of Dominican law.
Last week prosecutor Mercedes Rodriguez led a team of armed officers to search his house and seize his Porsche 4x4. His mother-in-law was at the property, but there was no sign of 28-year-old Carol Baez, Brown’sconcubina – his live-in girlfriend – who was named in previous court papers lodged against Brown.
In the house was a framed photograph of his dog Charlie, said to have been named after the former Liberal Democrat leader Charles Kennedy.
But of more interest to the Dominican authorities are a series of files that show Brown’s financial transactions, some in Miami.
“There was paperwork to show that he has several bank accounts in the United States,” said Miss Rodriguez.
“There were also a number of post office boxes that he has been using. The large sum of money that Mr Brown stole in the UK has led us to suspect that he has that money in some of those accounts. We do not know what he was doing with all the money but we will see where it has been going and if it has been coming in illegally.
“We will be contacting the authorities in the United States to ask for their co-operation. There have been money transfers from the United States to the Dominican Republic. This man has been involved in lots of businesses. He is not just living here for leisure.”
Brown has been remanded to the Modelo Penitenciaria de Anamuya, where he is being held in a cell with three other prisoners. Last week Brown was processed, allocated a number and a cell. He was allowed a shower before being issued with the prison uniform of a green T-shirt and blue shorts.
The year-old jail is home to 850 prisoners, two of them Britons on drug offences. Until he is flown back to Britain Brown will be woken at 6am and, after a shower, made to stand with the other prisoners for a head count. He will sit down to a breakfast of cereal and coffee before either working in the bakery and laundry room or helping prisoners learn English.
Lunch at 11am will be followed by more work or classes, an evening meal of rice and beans, before watching television in a communal room and lock-up.
There is little comfort, no internet access and limited visits – although on Sundays inmates are allowed conjugal visits from their partners.
Brown now has plenty of time to contemplate the end of his criminal career. A flight to Britain is looming as soon as the City of London police get in touch with their Dominican counterparts, and there is the worrying prospect of an FBI investigation into his American accounts.
Meanwhile, the Lib Dems are feeling increasingly uncomfortable at his return, and with it the reopening of the question of whether they have to return his donation to his victims, risking bankruptcy.
An Electoral Commission investigation is still under way and Labour MPs are calling for Nick Clegg’s party to be forced to pay up.
For Michael Brown, his days in the Caribbean are turning out to be a lot less comfortable than planned. And it would appear he’s not the only one likely to suffer.
Secretly-filmed footage from poultry farms suggests many egg producers on the Continent will flout a European Union ban on battery hens which comes into force today.
They found higher death rates in the free-range and barn-reared flocks than in the battery hen flocksPhoto: GETTY
By Jason Lewis, Investigations Editor, and Peter Allen in Paris
7:00AM GMT 01 Jan 2012
The graphic images, shot in the last few weeks by animal rights activists in France, show hens crammed into tiny wire cages despite new rules ordering farmers to use larger, so-called “enriched” containers which give birds space to spread their wings.
British egg producers have all switched from the controversial “barren battery cages” at a cost of £400 million, but fear that their businesses will be hit by an influx of cheaply-produced European imports from farms which have failed to comply.
In all, 23 per cent of total EU egg production is forecast to be 'illegal’ from today - equivalent to 84 million hens laying some 70 million eggs a day.
France is one of a number of European countries which admit that they are not ready for the new legislation designed to protect the welfare of laying hens.
Last week the French Association for the Free Rearing of Hens produced footage from six farms who it claimed had failed to introduce the new “humane” cages and were still using outlawed techniques.
It said its latest investigation, shared with The Sunday Telegraph, showed nothing had changed at several farms in Britanny which it had visited before and found to be in flagrant breach of animal welfare rules.
At one farm, near Languidic, the group, known as L214, found a shed filled with 4,140 cages some crammed with six or seven hens. The 19in (48cm) deep cages were designed for three birds but on average 20,700 birds were crammed five to a cage.
The group monitored the birds for more than a year noting how, after six months, many had lost their feathers and had their beaks trimmed. The group says it found dead hens had been left to rot in their cages.
The group refused to name the farm because of French privacy laws, but said it was a major supplier to a leading international egg processing plant in the region which sells to British food manufacturers and caterers.
Brigitte Gothiere, spokeswoman for the French animal rights group said: “Many of the birds were featherless and had damaged beaks. We do not think the new laws will force these farmers to abandon these cages.”
British mainstream supermarkets now only stock free range eggs or eggs from caged birds living in more humane and strictly regulated conditions.
But the market in liquid and powdered egg is less easy to police. Millions of litres of liquid egg is bottled up in France and shipped across Europe, mainly for use in the catering industry and by food manufacturers.
As well as France, eight other countries, including Italy, Poland and Portugal, have told the European Commission that their farmers will not be ready to fully implementing the new rules by today. Another four countries, including Greece and Spain, have said they are unlikely to be ready.
Because Brussels has not backed up the new law with fines, penalties or an export ban, there is nothing to stop farmers who flout it from selling their eggs in Britain.
That means British farmers, who have gone to great expense to meet the deadline to get rid of the cages, could find they are undercut and even forced out of business.
Around a quarter of all eggs end up being used in food manufacturing and processing, producing a variety of products for sale under both retailer own-label or branded products.
A recent Egg Products market report compiled a list of products considered to be most at risk of illegal egg imports from 1 January 2012.
Top of the list were Scotch eggs, which currently use 60 per cent imported eggs in the production process. It also revealed that half the eggs used to make sandwiches were imported, 30 per cent of the eggs used to produce quiches and cakes were produced abroad and 20 per cent of eggs used in Yorkshire puddings.
The British egg industry has repeatedly urged the Government to take tough action and ban imports into the UK of illegally produced eggs, egg products, and foods containing illegal eggs, from today – or risk crippling the UK egg industry.
But Jim Paice, the Agriculture Minister, said the Government was relying on the UK food industry to reach a 'voluntary consensus’ that they won’t sell or use battery-farmed eggs.
He said that the Government “has thoroughly investigated the possibility of taking unilateral action and bringing in a UK ban on all imports of egg and egg products which have been produced in conventional cages in other Member States. However, given the very significant legal and financial implications of introducing such a ban, coupled with practical difficulties in enforcing it, it is not a realistic option”.
Mr Paice added: “It is unacceptable that, after the ban on battery cages comes into effect, around 50 million hens across Europe will still remain in poor conditions. We have all had plenty of time to make these changes, but 13 EU nations have not done so. It would be unthinkable if countries continuing to house hens in poor conditions were to profit from flouting the law.”
Mark Williams, chief executive of the British Egg Industry Council (BEIC), said: “The UK egg industry feels totally let down by the Government. Whilst we have received repeated platitudes of support, it has failed to back these up with any real action.
“We need to see a complete ban on any illegally produced eggs, egg products and foods containing illegal eggs. That way, British consumers will know exactly what they are getting.
“EU member states have had more than 12 years to get their houses in order and comply with the new legislation, so there should be no excuses. British egg producers have invested heavily to meet their legal obligations – only to see their efforts jeopardised by an apparent lack of political will.”
Newcastle-based Lowrie Foods produces approximately 40 tonnes of pasteurised liquid egg per week to supply bakery customers. All eggs that are used are laid in the UK.
Managing director Tom Lowrie is very concerned about an influx of cheaper imported liquid egg being imported. He said: “Whatever the intention of buyers they
simply will not know as there will be no transparency”.
Much of the liquid egg produced in Holland and some in Germany uses egg imported from Eastern Europe and Poland in particular. “These are countries that will have significant production in conventional cages after the January 2012 deadline. It is inevitable that the liquid egg will be derived at least in part from illegal units.”
A spokeswoman for Compassion in World Farming said: “Consumers will have to be extra vigilant. The best way to be sure you’re not eating illegal and cruelly-produced eggs is to check that the label on your pasta, cake or ready meal says that any eggs are free range or organic.”
“The ban was voted for in 1999. There should be red faces in some European countries. Given the years they’ve had to prepare for this ban, there are no excuses. We are calling on the European Commission to prosecute those countries who have failed to comply.”
“It’s essential now to make sure that the ban is properly enforced, so consumers can buy products with confidence that they don’t contain illegal eggs.”
Under the new rules farmers much use new enriched 'colony’ cages which provide the birds with more space, a darkened nest area, perching space and a scratching area. Hens will normally be in groups of 50-80 in each colony which provides a much larger area in total over which to move around compared with the old cage system.
The new cages provide more living space per hen, 750 cm2 cage area per hen compared to 550 cm2 in conventional battery cages.
The Government agency, which protects historic buildings and monuments in England, has hired market researchers to investigate whether a new name would help raise its profile and broaden its appeal.
A series of focus groups were held last month in which panels of the organisation’s members were quizzed on the issue and asked for their ideas on what new name could be used.
Two hour sessions were held at the Research House facility, in central London, and organised by the Round Peg Field research company, with members paid £50 to attend.
During the discussions, members were asked a series of questions about the English Heritage name, including what it conveyed, whether it should be changed, and whether a new name would boost the numbers visiting its sites, which include Stonehenge.
One of those who attended, a longtime English Heritage member who asked not to be named, said: “The interlocutor opened the discussion by asking us about the name English Heritage and did we think it was a good name and was it what it said on the bottle.
“Then it went on to all sorts of things that got much more technical about the website and how it should be advertised. It was all really trying to find out how they would raise the profile of English Heritage.
“They asked whether it sounded too stuffy and asked whether we could come up with a more exciting title.
“We said 'no’, we thought it was fine. Compared with National Trust I think it’s a good name. But they were worried that the word 'heritage’ might put people off.
“Lurking behind the discussion was a comparison with the National Trust and the question of whether it was all too middle class and how one could broaden it a bit to draw in more people.
“That was certainly in the background even if it was never expressly put in as a question. The general feeling among us was that we thought it was less middle class and less stuck in the mud than the National Trust.”
The woman, who did not want to be named, said that the feeling among the six participants in her session were overwhelmingly in favour of retaining the existing name.
Participants were told in a letter that the results of their discussion would be analysed by an English Heritage 'project group’.
As well as running a series of visitor attractions, the organisation advises the Government on heritage issues. It also monitors the state of England’s historic sites and publishes the annual Heritage at Risk survey which aims to identify those in urgent need of protection and repair.
A spokesman for the agency said the research was to help it to “improve the visitor experience and generate income”.
He added: “In common with other visitor attraction organisations, we regularly seek the valuable opinions and feedback of our membership and visitors to the properties in our care.
“Understanding our current (and potential) members, visitors and supporters is essential if we are to continue to improve the visitor experience and generate income. Revenue generation is vital to protect, maintain and improve the national collection of over 400 historic sites, properties and monuments in our guardianship for current and future generations.
“It is not unusual for an organisation to ask the public for their opinions on the work it does and this may include seeking feedback on the name of the organisation.”
However, last night Dr Simon Thurley, the organisation’s chief executive, insisted the name was staying
“There is absolutely no intention whatsoever of English Heritage changing it’s excellent and very popular name and there never has been.
“We have to increase our profits by 100 per cent to £16.7 million. Our marketing department has a massive job to do and like any commercial visitor attraction they do market research to understand how we can attract more members and visitors.
“We have a £50 million plus commercial turnover now, so it’s big business and the research will be contributing to our marketing campaigns for next year and informing the design and content of the handbook.”