May 20, 2009

In Britain, Scandal Flows From Modest Request

By JOHN F. BURNS

LONDON — It began modestly enough back in 2005, when an American freelance writer and journalism teacher living in London, Heather Brooke, entered a request under Britain‘s newly promulgated freedom of information act for details of the expense claims of British members of Parliament.

Ms. Brooke’s initiative to expose the politicians’ greed, now led by one of the country’s principal newspapers, The Daily Telegraph, has led to the biggest scandal to hit the House of Commons in decades. On Tuesday, the affair claimed its biggest victim yet when the speaker of the House of Commons, Michael Martin, became the first man to be ousted from that job in more than 300 years.

At one level, the scandal is a rich tale of politicians exploiting a lax system of expenses to claim a mind-boggling array of benefits. The claims have centered on so-called second-home allowances, which have allowed some members of Parliament to use nearly $40,000 a year in taxpayers’ money to renovate and even sell properties for profit, while others have claimed monthly payments for mortgages that had already been paid off. Still others claimed “necessities” like the clearing of a country house moat, an electrical massage chair and even a Kit Kat bar.

At another level, it is a story of a newspaper, The Telegraph, which broke with a reputation as a stuffy publication favored by retired army colonels and blue-rinsed widows to seize what has turned out to be one of Britain’s greatest scoops. As it has done so, it has stolen a march on its rivals in an overcrowded market where vanishing profits have intensified an already brutal rivalry.

The Telegraph’s editors, with daily banner headlines pummeling members of Parliament like a boxer raining blows on a helpless opponent, have declined to comment on reports that they paid about $140,000 for disks containing more than a million individual expense claims by members of Parliament over the past over the past four years. An unidentified whistleblower is said to have approached at least one of The Telegraph’s rival publications, The Times of London, with an initial demand for $380,000.

The timing of the scandal has played its part in fostering a public outcry with few precedents in parliamentary history. With Britain mired in its deepest recession since the 1930s, and tens of thousands losing jobs every month, it is hard to imagine a less auspicious moment, for the parliamentarians, to have their expenses exposed to public scrutiny.

In response, they have made groveling apologies, waved reimbursement checks before television cameras and pledged to restore “respect for Parliament.”

For the time being, the scandal has overwhelmed every other story in Britain’s media. The country’s main television news channels offer live coverage of every twist and turn, while members of Parliament with dubious expense claims elbow their way past television crews and newspaper reporters mounting vigils outside their homes. Almost every hour brings new attempts to save careers with hand-on-heart apologies, tortuous explanations and promises of unrelenting modesty in future claims on the public purse.

The two main political protagonists in the affair, Prime Minister Gordon Brown, leader of the Labor Party, and David Cameron, leader of the opposition Conservatives, have escalated their responses to the scandal day by day. Both have pledged that no member of Parliament shown to have made improper expense claims will be allowed to run as a candidate in a general election that must be held before June 2010. With at least 80 Parliament members already named by The Telegraph in its serialized chronicle of abuses, that could result in dozens of sitting members being denied the chance to run for re-election.

Some have already decided to jump before they are pushed. Just as Mr. Martin was announcing his decision to quit Tuesday, the man who seems likely to become the unhappy icon of the scandal, Douglas Hogg, announced he would quit Parliament, and politics, at the end of its current term. Mr. Hogg, 64, a former Conservative cabinet minister and an aristocratic grandee, was the man who included a $3,400 claim for the clearing of his country house moat on a list of his expenses.

When The Telegraph first made the moat claim public, Mr. Hogg provided one of the more farcical moments of the scandal, leading a BBC television crew on a fast-paced march from his London home to the House of Commons. Wearing a flat cap of a kind favored at country steeplechases, and trying breathlessly to explain the bureaucratic intricacies of the expenses system, he avoided, for several minutes, responding directly to the BBC reporter’s insistent questions about the moat. A few days later, under pressure from Mr. Cameron, he announced that he would repay the money claimed for the moat.

Ms. Brooke, who entered the original request for the details of the expenses, has been a largely unheralded figure as the scandal has unfolded. She worked as an investigative reporter in Washington State and South Carolina before moving about 10 years ago to Britain, her parents’ birthplace. Her request led to a protracted battle by the labor majority in Parliament to get a statutory exemption for their expense claims from the freedom of information act, a bid abandoned only in January.

The blustering efforts of Mr. Martin, the 63-year-old speaker, to block the publication of the expenses, and his announcement last week that he had asked Scotland Yard to open a criminal investigation into the leak to The Telegraph, appeared to have contributed to the decision by Mr. Brown to pressure him into resigning. That made him the first speaker forced out since 1695. Scotland Yard chose the moment of Mr. Martin’s resignation to announce that it would not be investigating the leak.

The expenses were to have been made public anyway by the House of Commons in July, after detailed redacting by officials that would have disguised some of the members’ more controversial practices. One of these would have been the so-called flipping from one house or apartment to another in second-home claims, which enabled some members to buy and improve properties at the expense of the taxpayers and then sell them for handsome profits.

For readers of The Telegraph, many of them staunch Conservatives, the revelations have carried an irony of their own. The day-by-day exposures have raised questions about the integrity of many Conservatives, as well as members of Labor and the Liberal Democrats, the third major party in the Commons, making for what some commentators have called an “equal opportunity” scandal.

Alan Cowell contributed reporting from Paris, Sarah Lyall from London, and Sharon Otterman from New York.

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