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Charity probe compromised private details of disabled police officers

By Deborah McAleese

Published 18/09/2015

Attorney General John Larkin QC
Attorney General John Larkin QC

Personal details of former police officers and politicians have been compromised by a massive phone and computer probe at a charity.

Thousands of phone messages and emails were accessed and used as part of an inquiry by the Charity Commission for Northern Ireland (CCNI) into the workings of the Disabled Police Officers Association of Northern Ireland (DPOANI).

More than 5,000 texts and emails, including personal details of retired police officers and a number of MLAs, were then shared and retained by the Charity Commission.

Both the Attorney General and the Police Ombudsman became embroiled in the case following complaints that the interception was potentially contrary to surveillance laws and data protection.

It has not yet been established who authorised the probe and on what legal grounds.

The CCNI told the Belfast Telegraph that DPOANI took a decision to access records held on work phones and computers as the information "was essential for the administration of the charity".

CCNI added that the charity consequently met with a security consultancy firm along with it "to see if and how this could be undertaken".

It stressed that it had "not supported, facilitated or undertaken any illegal activity in any of its investigations".

A DPOANI spokesperson said: "The DPOANI believes it has acted appropriately and reasonably in this matter but is not in a position to make any further comments due to pending litigation."

DUP MLA and Policing Board member Jonathan Craig said he was "outraged" by the revelations.

"It is completely unacceptable that personal details of severely injured officers were accessed. The real question is, who authorised this and under what criteria?"

Several members of the DPOANI - a charity that provides help and support to seriously injured RUC and PSNI officers - became aware earlier this year that their private messages had been intercepted and that they formed part of a CCNI investigation into the running of the organisation. The CCNI is the independent regulator of charities here. The findings of its probe, which led to the suspension last year of DPOANI's chief executive Elaine Hampton and four trustees, is still pending.

The suspensions are currently being legally challenged.

The Attorney General John Larkin has contacted the CCNI about the probe following a complaint from a phone user. It is understood he's awaiting the outcome of legal proceedings taken by a number of phone users before making a decision on how to proceed.

A complaint was made to the PSNI about the interception. However following legal advice a senior officer decided there was a lack of "reasonable grounds to suspect the commission of a criminal offence".

An inquiry by the Police Ombudsman into the PSNI's decision not to investigate - following a complaint that the officer "had failed in his duty of care to investigate criminal activity reported to him" - found that the officer had acted on legal advice and therefore there was no misconduct. A spokeswoman for CCNI added: "As the charity regulator we have a remit to investigate allegations of mismanagement and misconduct within charities. We also have a wide range of powers in order to allow us to exercise that investigatory and regulatory role.

"All information obtained and retained by the commission during this investigation, and indeed all investigations, was done so lawfully. There has been no contact from the Police Ombudsman in respect of any matter relating to this case."

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