Belfast Telegraph

Targeted by journalists investigating 'cash for questions' ... but Laird 'knew it was a sting'

By Liam Clarke

Lord Laird already suspected a journalistic sting when he lunched with Sunday Times undercover reporters posing as business lobbyists, it has been claimed.

LORD Laird already suspected a journalistic sting when he lunched with Sunday Times undercover reporters posing as business lobbyists, it has been claimed.

He was so suspicious that he reported it next day to the House of Commons authorities, according to a friend who accompanied him.

Yesterday Laird dramatically relinquished the Ulster Unionist whip until the Parliamentary Standards Commission has ruled on his actions. He was targeted in two separate sting operations by reporters.

The first was by the Daily Telegraph and BBC's Panorama who asked him to lobby on behalf of the government of Fiji, which was suspended from the Commonwealth for failing to hold elections following a military takeover in 2006. The second was by the Sunday Times Insight team who posed as representatives of a fictitious Korean solar heating company. Two Labour peers, Lord Cunningham and Lord Mackenzie of Framwellgate, were also targeted by the Insight team. It claims that all three "offered to become paid advocates for a firm pushing for new laws to benefit its business" but the peers have all denied any wrongdoing.

Speaking to the Belfast Telegraph, Kevin Cahill, who accompanied the peer to lunch with the two journalists in the plush Ivy restaurant in London's West End, said: "John [Laird] said repeatedly that there was a red line he would not cross. He was very suspicious and we knew the company they claimed to represent was a fake."

Mr Cahill is himself a former Sunday Times Insight reporter.

The newspaper's team contacted Lord Laird after he had already been stung by Panorama. He had said that, if they paid him, he would get other peers to ask parliamentary questions on behalf of the Fijian government so that it would not have to be recorded in the register of interests.

This may have made him suspicious when, on May 14, he received an e-mail from "Coulton & Goldie Global, a Zurich-based strategic consultancy" offering him work for a far eastern solar heating firm. They had e-mailed 14 peers but only three took the bait.

Mr Cahill added: "John showed me the e-mail and it took about 10 minutes to establish the company didn't exist. There was a website as well but it was full of PR blah with no names. I finally sent a friend in Zurich round to the address they gave and there was no such business there. I told John I thought it was almost certainly the Sunday Times."

That was on May 17. Lord Laird told Mr Cahill he wanted to see what was going on. He invited Coulton & Goldie to meet him in the Lords but they refused.

"That was suspicious, the journalists may have feared being recognised by politicians or feared breaching parliamentary privileges," Mr Cahill added.

Instead a lunch was set up at the Ivy where the journalists produced a confidentiality agreement which Lord Laird and Mr Cahill both signed. He said they then "revealed" they were working for Haemousu, a fictitious south Korean solar heating company named after the Korean sun god.

"They repeatedly tried to get John Laird to agree to act for them but he refused. It became a battle with them trying to get him to accept a bribe and him trying to draw them out," Mr Cahill said.

"It might have been better to confront them and bring things to a head after the soup course but we didn't do that."

Lord Laird subsequently asked "Coulton & Goldie" to provide a London address and send him a written contract. On May 21, they replied telling him that they had decided not to use him after all. Mr Cahill points out no money changed hands and Lord Laird never agreed to work for them.

The Ulster Unionist peer insists he has "not broken any rules".

Mike Nesbitt, the UUP leader, said had spoken to the peer after reviewing footage and media reporting of the stings, leading to him relinquishing the party whip.

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