Auditor calls payments to SFO ex-chief irregular

Ben Southwood
Follow Ben
THE SERIOUS Fraud Office (SFO) made several “irregular” payments to outgoing chief executive Phillippa Williamson, according to the results of an audit into the events surrounding her April departure from the financial crime watchdog.

Investigators deemed £422,000 worth of payments benefiting Williamson to be “irregular”, due to a lack of legally required approval from the Cabinet Office in one case, and HM Treasury in another.

“By failing to seek approval from the Cabinet Office and the Treasury, the SFO entered into an agreement which forced it to make irregular payments,” said Amyas Morse, head of the National Audit Office (NAO).

Even her voluntary redundancy itself, secured on 16th April this year, was carried out without due process, Comptroller and Auditor General Morse, leading the audit, judged.

The £422,000 was made up of £407,000 transferred to the civil service pension scheme, in order to cover extra pensions payments, and a £15,000 “special severance payment” given directly to Williamson. The SFO was required to gain approval from the Cabinet Office to make the first payment, and from HM Treasury to make the second – but the NAO says there is no evidence of approval being obtained in either case.

A new director, David Green, succeeded previous boss Richard Alderman five days after both Alderman and Williamson left the SFO – and Green decided not to approve the payment transactions, judging them “inappropriate”. However, upon seeking legal advice, Green discovered the SFO was legally obliged to make the payments, even though they were judged “irregular.”

Shadow Attorney General Emily Thornberry said the revelations were “jaw-dropping” and said current Attorney General Dominic Grieve had “failed…to get a grip on [the SFO].”

“We cannot have irregular payments being made inside what is supposed to be the country’s leading fraud investigator,” Thornberry argued. “The SFO faces budget cuts of more than 25 per cent this parliament and can ill-afford squandering half a million on appalling decisions like this.”

SFO director Green has commissioned an independent review in hopes of making sure future exit package provisions go through all the proper channels.