Save us from this blackmailer

By Jonathan Goldberg, January 28, 2010
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John from London writes:

My younger brother and I are sole owners of a long-established wholesale business employing 25 staff in addition to ourselves. We are in our sixties and in hindsight perhaps we have been relaxing too much on the golf course and paying insufficient attention to what was going on in our absence. Some months ago we began to suspect that our trusted manager who has worked for us for almost 30 years, was stealing from us by writing company cheques to suppliers who were his own friends and family members. They were supplying us at inflated quantities and prices. We confronted him a fortnight ago. He denied it, and we demanded a written report explaining the discrepancies, telling him that we would then consider his position. It was our intention to seek legal advice on the best way to sack him but it was necessary to tread carefully, not least because he is from an ethnic minority.

A few days later my brother was coming out of a hotel with his secretary, and he bumped into the manager. Subsequently an anonymous letter arrived at my home, threatening to expose my brother’s affair to his wife. Even worse, the letter threatens to report to the Revenue an allegation that an undeclared part of our business has been done in cash, and it speaks of “people who live in glass houses”. It is obvious who has sent it and why. We are having sleepless nights trying to decide whether we must now turn a blind eye to our manager’s conduct, as the alternative may be much worse for us. Can you advise?

John, your predicament is horrible, and your anguish is easy to imagine. However, the famous words of Rudyard Kipling spring to mind: “And that is called paying the Dane-geld; But we’ve proved it again and again/That if once you have paid him the Dane-geld; You never get rid of the Dane.”

I have a strong feeling that if you permit the manager to get away with this, he will end up taking over your business in all but name. The alternative is painful but clear. Your brother should tell his wife about his indiscretion. And then you should both report this clear blackmail attempt to the police. It may be best to use a discreet solicitor as the intermediary initially. He should seek to contact a police officer of high rank, and raise your concerns that all measures must be taken to preserve your anonymity. You should carefully preserve the anonymous letter, which may yield forensic clues. You should co-operate fully with whatever methods the police wish to use to investigate the matter — they may want to fit you with a concealed tape recorder for example.

The police, the Crown Prosecution Service and the courts themselves nowadays bend over backwards to show sensitivity to blackmail victims, and to preserve their anonymity in court proceedings. This will involve such measures as giving evidence from behind screens and gag orders preventing the press from identifying you.

Moreover they are simply not interested (save perhaps in an extreme case) to investigate in turn the facts behind the blackmail threat. In other words, they will not go running to the Revenue with your accounts as a by-product of their prosecution of the manager. It is highly unlikely that the court would later permit any questions as to whether or not you failed to declare cash income, since this would be irrelevant.

Everyone involved in the system realises that it is in the interests of justice to expose and prosecute blackmailers, who are among the worst of criminals. Judges have called them “murderers of the soul”. All possible measures are taken to ensure a victim is not put off from reporting the crime or from giving evidence against the perpetrator.

I advise you both to bite the bullet. You really have no other choice. It will not seem much comfort to you now, but you are far from being the first people ever to find themselves in this situation.

The above is not formal legal advice and is strictly without liability. Readers should consult a lawyer on any matter concerning them. Questions to QC@thejc.com. All readers’ questions will be treated anonymously and all names changed. Jonathan Goldberg QC is a leading lawyer at Ely Place Chambers in London

    Last updated: 10:40am, January 28 2010