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Flawed Criminal Case Sees Diplomat Cleared & Foreign Office Red Faced

August 5, 2011

A marathon and costly?eight week criminal case at London's Southwark Crown Court of a British diplomat has left the Foreign Office with egg on its face after he was cleared

What now transpires to have been an attempt to forestall an unfair dismissal claim by?Entry Clearance Officer (ECO)?Mark Griffith (below outside Southwark Crown Court)?has been exposed by the trial, and that the prosecution's case had in the main been totally flawed.?

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Mark Griffith, 45,?from Norwich had been charged with 3 counts of misconduct in a public office between December 2005 and May 2007,?alongside another man, Sam Fongho, 40,?of London who was formerly a marketing head of a recruitment company, who was charged with counselling and procuring Griffith to neglect his duty, as well as a further charge of conspiring to use false instruments on the same dates.

Fongho was convicted on the single count of false intruments in that he had allowed fake references to be used in support of visa applications.

The prosecution case had been rocked halfway through the trial when, at the closing of the Crown's case by Prosecutor Simon Wild, the defense had applied to have the charges thrown out on the grounds that there was no case to answer.

Judge Pegden QC then ruled that?one of the?charges of misconduct in a public office against Griffith be dropped, and the serious charge against?Fongho?of counselling and procuring Griffith to neglect his duty also be dropped. The judge ruled that two counts of misconduct against Griffith and the count of the use of false instruments against Fongho be proceeded with.

Griffith' defense counsel Philip Katz QC request that the trial be halted and separate trials be proceeded with on the grounds that no charges now linked the defendant's was rejected by the judge, although he did order all legal teams and court officials to spend a day in court without the jury excising all references to the now defunct charges. This meant that along with barrister?Simon Baker for Fongho, 40 boxes of files had to be examined and non-relevant details be deleted.

This also meant that both Griffith and Fongho had separate trials within the same courtroom as the defense outlined their case.

What had clearly come out during the prosecution's case was that a mistake by an immigration officer (IO)?at London's Gatwick Airport had set in train a series of events that led to the eventual trial. These events included an investigation that was mainly flawed, and had been triggered by Mark Griffith' application to have?what he considered was?the?unfair dismissal from his post as ECO at the British embassy in?Tirana, Albania?reviewed.

Griffith had accompanied an Albanian national on a flight from Tirana to the UK, and at immigration control at Gatwick, an IO had wrongly concluded that Griffith had approved the visa for the Albanian. In fact Griffith had passed a visa for the man for a previous visit, but the visa the Albanian was travelling on this time?had in fact been approved by Griifith' co-ECO at the embassy, a Julie Beard.

A heated argument at Gatwick took place between the IO and Griffith which led to the investigation. This internal investigation of visas passed by Griffith led the government inspectors to approve a disciplinary hearing against Griffith. He was then recalled to the UK for the hearing at which he was dismissed for misconduct.

Photo Credit: Adrian Pingstone

Griffith then appealed under the internal procedures of the Foreign Office (above)?against his dismissal. At the end of the formalities of this internal review, he was then arrested on suspicion of misconduct and conspiracy.

It was clear that Griffith was going to go forward with an unfair dismissal claim to the independent industrial tribunal that would have then taken his claim into the public domain, his internal appeal had been covered by government confidentiality rules, whilst an industrial tribunal hearing could be publicly reported.

After the conclusion of trial, Mark Griffith told Balita Pinoy that the internal procedures had not been followed properly. Apparently, the final hearing was composed of a panel which included Foreign Office officials and lay persons, and?was to consider his re-instatement into his position. The hearing concluded, and it was normal policy that there would be a written judgement given in three working days, with a confirmation by either the Foreign?Secretary or his senior civil servant.

What actually happened was that Griffith was in a pub at the conclusion of the?final hearing and was sent a text by his line manager within an hour that he was to be arrested by police.?

This gives a clear indication that the British Foreign Office wished to forestall any possible claim for unfair dismissal which may be brought by Griffith.

The reason for this is obvious. British employment law is clear on this point.

Claims of unfair dismissal can only be brought before an employment tribunal. There are strict and very short time limits for claims of unfair dismissal. Normally a claim must be brought within three months of the last day of employment, counting the last day of employment as the first day of the three month period. This rule is often summarised as "three months less a day". Employees may bring such claims themselves, either with or without representation. Solicitors and certain other representatives regulated by the Ministry of Justice may represent employees in Employment Tribunal proceedings.

What this means in essence is that if Griffith were waiting trial, in his case for four years, he would be out of time for pursuing a claim for unfair dismissal.

This was obviously a crude attempt by the Foreign Office to ensure that no details regarding Griffith' employment would ever see the light of day.

What was exposed during the trial was that his opposite number as ECO in the Tirana embassy, Julie Beard, had also been under investigation, although she was not dismissed but was offered demotion as a punishment. She declined this and took early retirement instead.

Whilst Griffith conceded at the hearing and his later trial that he had dealt with some visa applications he should not have looked at?as he knew the applicants, it was never proved that these applications were wrong, and it was accepted by the prosecution during the trial that there was nothing wrong with any of the visa applications approved by Griffith. Prosecution witnesses stated that they too would have approved these visas.

In fact evidence to the contrary came out during the trial that Griffith had in fact exceeded internal targets set for visa refusals. The fact that ECO's are set targets for the refusal of visas has long been suspected, but kept concealed from public knowledge.

After his arrest, the investigation by Foreign Office officials and the police then found another target, Sam Fongho (below), of a recruiting company, who had submitted applications through the Tirana embassy for Albanians to get visas to enter the UK as care workers. Several of the visas had been passed by Griffith, although others had been passed by the co-ECO. Thinking they could prove corruption between the Griffith and Fongho, the investigation, prosecution and eventual trial proceeded along these lines.

What did come out during the trial was that the two defendants had in fact met on only four occasions, one of these being a social function at the embassy, and that there had been no financial links between the two. An extensive trawl of the financial records of both proved this.

The investigation of the financial circumstances of Griffith and a lifestyle check also showed that he had no secret monies hidden away, and was in fact living on his government salary. These crucial facts, along with the timing of his arrest leads to grave suspicions that the prosecution was brought to stop any internal faults within embassies being brought to light at an unfair dismissal hearing.

The prosecution relied heavily on over 40 boxes of documentary evidence along with government witnesses, as well as that of care home operators who used Fongho to get Albanian workers in their employ. Several of these care home witnessess testimony was called into doubt by the defense as it was clearly shown applications had been made for Senior Care Workers to be granted visas, when in fact the employees were used as lower paid care assistants. It was shown that several of these care assistants only became Senior Care Workers when renewal applications were made by the care home operators to extend the visas/work permits.

Fongho was convicted on the false intruments charge after it was shown that several of the workplace references submitted in applications made for his candidates were essentially of the same nature, and that some of the candidates in evidence said that the references shown to them were not part of?their CV's.

Judge Pegden QC told Fongho that this was a unique situation, and that whilst he recognized that it was widespread practice thoughout the care industry to doctor applications to allow non-EU?workers?into the country, it was inconceivable that he [Fongho] did not know what was going on.

Fongho will be sentenced on September 9, and his bail was continued while reports by the probation service are completed.

Balita Pinoy eventually got a statement from the British Foreign & Commenwealth?Office.

An FCO spokesperson said:

The recent court case was the conclusion of a criminal investigation independent of the FCO.

We are content that full internal FCO disciplinary procedures were carried out correctly in relation to Mr Griffith.

On Julie Beard: Mr Griffith was an FCO employee, Julie Beard was not. We cannot comment on non- FCO employees.?[She was apparently employed by the Home Office, Balita Pinoy]?

In response to your query about the recent court case: Mr Griffith was dismissed from the FCO because allegations of gross misconduct were upheld. We are clear that, after following our internal disciplinary procedures and applying the standard civil law test applicable to disciplinary matters, dismissal was the correct decision.


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