A second prison officer is set to be suspended over claims the personal details of a former Maghaberry governor were planted in the cell of a dissident republican.
The officer was part of the search team which found a note with details about Steve Rodford in the cell of Brendan McConville in September 2009.
Mr Rodford resigned weeks later — less than five months after taking the job — and fled Northern Ireland amid fears that he was under threat.
However, an investigation by Prisoner Ombudsman Pauline McCabe concluded that “on the balance of probabilities” the note had been planted by a warder at the jail. Yesterday the Prison Service confirmed a warder — understood to be a highly-experienced officer — has been suspended and a criminal investigation launched.
The second warder is expected to be suspended when he returns to duty at the prison next week.
It came as colleagues expressed astonishment that the integrity of the two officers — who have over 50 years’ service between them — were being questioned by the Ombudsman.
One source said: “I would trust both these men with my life, and so would many other officers.
“They have 55 years’ service between them and they have carried out searches of the prison for years.
“The implication in the Ombudsman’s statement has caused immense anger among their colleagues.”
It is understood that the suspended officer is considered so experienced as a search team officer that he is sent to other prison establishments abroad to instruct their search teams.
Yesterday the Prison Service said it was suspending the officer as a precautionary measure in line with its disciplinary policy.
A Prison Service spokeswoman said: “We have launched a disciplinary investigation into this matter which has been adjourned pending the outcome of a police investigation.
“A member of staff has been precautionary suspended in accordance with our code of discipline.”
However, the move infuriated many of his colleagues.
The chairman of the Prison Officers’ Association, Finlay Spratt, refused to make any comment about the suspension because of the PSNI investigation.
But officers at Maghaberry are angry at the suspension move.
“This was deliberately leaked and that raises questions about the motive behind the publicity,” said one.
“As we understand it, the whole search was filmed by a senior officer who had a camcorder.
“Why, if there was any suspicion of wrongdoing, were the police not called in before now. The officer who is suspended emptied a Steradent tube, six tablets fell out and then a piece of paper fell out.
“As I understand it, the suspended officer has even volunteered his DNA for analysis to prove he did not touch the piece of paper with the details of governor Rodford on it.”
Officers say that so far the Prisoner Ombudsman has produced no evidence of any wrongdoing against any prison officer.
“The inference being drawn is that these officers have done something wrong because handwriting on a piece of paper found in a prisoner’s cell wasn’t in the prisoner’s handwriting,” the colleague added.
“That hardly warrants an assumption of wrongdoing on the part of any member of the search team in the cell that day, but that’s what’s being suggested.”
The findings were made following an 18-month investigation by Ms McCabe. She concluded that, on the balance of probabilities, the note had been planted in Mr McConville's cell. Her report claimed it was an attempt to encourage Mr Rodford to reconsider planned changes he was proposing to make at the prison.
Ms McCabe has also concluded that prison staff leaked incorrect information to the media that suggested Mr Rodford was being actively targeted by dissident republicans.
The Ombudsman said there were reasonable grounds to indicate that one member of staff may have committed a disciplinary and criminal offence.
McConville’s solicitor, Kevin Winters, said: “A key component of the investigation will be whether or not this was an isolated act, or indeed whether or not a person or persons were acting in concert.
“I think the material does show that finding, that in effect more than one person may have been involved.”
He also said McConville would challenge the case against him over the murder of PSNI officer Stephen Carroll.