EPISODE 47

BRING DOWN THE BIG MAN

BRING DOWN THE BIG MAN

James Ibori went from being a low-level London thief to leveraging connections at the top of Nigeria’s political elite to get appointed governor of oil-rich Delta State. Along with Ibori’s rapid rise came corruption on an unimaginable scale. Ibori only earned about $40,000 a year but drove a fleet of Range Rovers when he wasn’t flying around on his private jet to his London and Johannesburg homes. Ibori’s credit card bill alone was $200,000 every month - much of it spent in the UK - so Ibori was very much on the radar of Britain’s top cops: Scotland Yard. One detective in particular, Jonathan Benton, wouldn’t rest until justice was served.
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True Spies Episode 47 - Bring Down The Big Man


NARRATOR:
Welcome to True Spies. Week by week, mission by mission, you’ll hear the true stories behind the world’s greatest espionage operations. You’ll meet the people who navigate this secret world. What do they know? What are their skills? And what would YOU do in their position? This is True Spies.

JONATHAN BENTON: These are really powerful people who can draw on everything they can do. They’ll bring in a legal system, the attorney general. They’ll even get their cops to turn against us.

NARRATOR: This is True Spies, Episode 47. Bring Down The Big Man. This is the story of taking down a bad man. 

JONATHAN BENTON: Even the truly powerful can fall eventually. 

NARRATOR: It's a story like no other story that had come before. 

JONATHAN BENTON: Nobody had ever taken a corrupt, elite person who was massively powerful.

NARRATOR: And it's told by the man who led the investigation against him.

JONATHAN BENTON: Jonathan, Jonathan Benton. JB is what everybody calls me.

NARRATOR: Our protagonist doesn’t just share his initials with the world's most famous fictional spy, Jonathan Benton is as sharp, brave and skilful as any dapper agent you've seen on the big screen. But there are a couple of differences. Jonathan isn't really a spy.

JONATHAN BENTON: I'm a former senior detective.

NARRATOR: He's a cop turned forensic crime investigator, and unlike James Bond, he doesn't work alone.

JONATHAN BENTON: It'd be thoroughly unfair if I make it sound like I'm some sort of bloody superhero on my own. I was a detective at Scotland Yard that headed up a specialist team that investigated corrupt politicians. 

NARRATOR: So throughout this story, we'll also be hearing about his colleagues who were at the frontline of the action.

JONATHAN BENTON: The nucleus was really John and Pete. They're good, proper detectives. Good, honest detectives.

NARRATOR: Honesty, you’re about to find out what a rare thing that is in the world in which Jonathan works. Time to meet the subject of the investigation.

JONATHAN BENTON: This particular guy is called James Ibori. He's actually quite an interesting character. This is not like a normal villain. He's a big man and they call him the big man.

NARRATOR: And he had big ambitions to match his physique.

JONATHAN BENTON: He was on a journey probably all the way to the top. Probably going to be president someday.

NARRATOR: By the late 1990s, James Ibori had reached a level of power, wealth and influence that not many of us can even imagine, but life didn't start out that way for Mr Ibori. In fact, the story of his rise to power is astonishing.

JONATHAN BENTON: Just going back in history a bit, James Ibori lived in London. He lived here with his wife, Theresa. They lived in a modest, semi-detached house in south London. His wife is working at Wickes, a DIY (do it yourself) store, in the UK, it's just a standard high street DIY store. And they got caught stealing property from the shop, basically, and decided to go back to Nigeria.

NARRATOR: That's when Ibori's criminal inclinations switched up a gear, from stealing hammer drills and shelving units to becoming embedded in the underbelly of Nigerian politics.

JONATHAN BENTON: There was a guy called Sani Abacha. He was the last military dictator in Nigeria, and Sani Abacha just stole money on a vast scale, an absolutely vast scale, emptied the country’s huge amounts of oil wealth. 

NARRATOR: General Abacha was siphoning off Nigeria’s oil money into his own pockets. But it's not that easy to spend the money you've stolen from the public purse. You don’t want people asking questions about how you came by so much cash. You need to muddy the path that links you to the bribes, embezzlement and theft.

JONATHAN BENTON: Sani Abacha can't turn up at Credit Suisse or Goldman Sachs or Deutsche Bank or Barclays or any of those, and say: ‘Right, give me a bank account, please.’ Especially when [he’s] president, because they'd be very nervous about taking you on because of all the corruption-related risks. So you don't put anything in your name. 

NARRATOR: If you're powerful and corrupt, you need to get your money into places where you can spend it without raising red flags. You need people with foreign bank accounts, people like say ... James Ibori.

JONATHAN BENTON: James was one person who had bank accounts and was prepared to let them be used to launder illicit money through.

NARRATOR: So how did James go from working behind the counter at a DIY store in south London, into a position where he could offer his services to the military dictator of Nigeria?

JONATHAN BENTON: He was well-connected. He'd taken over the chief position from his father and he was shrewd and he very quickly got himself ingratiated with the right people, so he was effectively ingratiating himself with the president.

NARRATOR: Ah yes, connections. And by offering the use of his UK bank accounts to the leader of Nigeria, James Ibori soon found himself rising through the ranks of power. By the time Sani Abacha died in 1998, James had rubbed shoulders with enough of the right people, that when the Nigerian government had a reshuffle, he found himself in one of the most powerful government positions in the country. He was appointed the governor of Nigeria's Delta State, in the south of the country. 

JONATHAN BENTON: It's where all the oil is. All the oil companies are there. It's one of the richest states in Nigeria. And, if you're the state governor, well, you've got your hand on top of the tap that turns the cashflow.

NARRATOR: James Ibori had landed the plumb job. This position was a reward for looking after General Abacha while he was in power. There are only two other jobs in Nigeria that could have provided a more lucrative opportunity for corruption; the minister of petroleum and the president. And yes, Jonathan has investigated them both. 

JONATHAN BENTON: And so James had gone from this kind of almost rags-to-riches in no time. He'd gone from being involved in petty crime in the UK to suddenly being one of the most powerful state governors in Nigeria.

NARRATOR: James Ibori now held a position of immense power, but on paper, he wasn't making big money. He was being paid a modest government salary for the job he'd landed, probably around US$40,000 a year. But oh, would you look at that?

JONATHAN BENTON: His monthly credit card bill was $200,000. So, you know, it didn't take a lot to work out what was going on.

NARRATOR: James Ibori wasn't exactly a discreet spender. Let’s hear some of the luxury items on the shopping list.

JONATHAN BENTON: A brand new Bentley. A fleet of armored Range Rovers that cost hundreds and hundreds of thousands. He'd got a house in London. He'd got the house in Dorset used for a couple of days a year. He'd got a massive, big, mansion down in Johannesburg. He'd got a great big villa in Nigeria. His private jet - everything he wants it because he was in power. 

NARRATOR: And we all know the expression, with great power comes ... well ... unfortunately in this case ... gargantuan levels of corruption. You might not be totally clear on how this all works - unless you’ve laundered millions of dollars, why would you know the ins and outs of cleaning dirty money? So, here it is ... Money Laundering, A Dummies Guide but be warned ...

JONATHAN BENTON: It's not quite as simple as people think it is. You can't just move $20m from some dodgy oil deal that's been paid into an account in Africa and get it across to London. You need to set up a trail of excuses and reasons.

NARRATOR: This is not an easy recipe for wealth, so proceed with extreme caution. You'll need to follow each stage carefully, and to procure your ingredients from the seediest sources. The recipe can take a few years of preparation. And the result? A very unsavory fortune. So here we go, first, you'll need access to an almost unlimited source of wealth, maybe, say ... 

JONATHAN BENTON: Delta State, the seat of the cash cow in Nigeria.

NARRATOR: Yes, that's perfect. Now you’re not just taking a slice of someone else’s dirty pie, you have your own source of state funds to feast from. Oil companies are seeking contracts worth billions of dollars, and they need to keep you sweet if they want you to sign off on the deal. And what's sweeter than cold, hard cash? 

JONATHAN BENTON: You make sure your bribe is paid. Twenty percent of the money they make is just sort of quietly pushed to one side.

NARRATOR: Or should we say, inside? Inside your pocket. Okay, what's next?

JONATHAN BENTON: Once you've got your bribe, you've got to get it out of, say, Nigeria.

NARRATOR: You don't want to be spending all this money in the same place it came from. The trail would be too obvious. You'd be linked too easily to the stolen money.

JONATHAN BENTON: Really, you want to put it somewhere where you can enjoy it, but the next challenge is navigating the banks because if you're a politician you're going to pop up on every system. The banks are gonna stop the money. 

NARRATOR: So you need some rotten apples, unsavory characters who'll help you get the money clean.

JONATHAN BENTON: Ideally. You need a bent corrupt banker that really knows where the money's come from but is prepared to turn a blind eye, manipulate the system, make sure the forms say the right thing, make sure they don't set off any alarm bells. 

NARRATOR: And for the next ingredient ...

JONATHAN BENTON: A corrupt lawyer that's prepared to bend the rules. Why a lawyer? Well, they can sign so much off. They can say they've conducted due diligence. They can say they've verified documents. They can say that they know the source of wealth where the money's come from.

NARRATOR: Now, you have the oil, the rotten apples. 

JONATHAN BENTON: Once you've got that in place, you're sort of cooking on gas really. 

NARRATOR: And you're almost ready to feast on your fortune, but first you need to give it a good stir.

JONATHAN BENTON: Move this money around the world. Once it's moved several times, it's now got some distance between wherever the bribe payment came from, whoever stole it. It's now got a veneer of legitimacy over it. You can now start using it to buy your Mercedes-Maybach - as James Ibori did.

NARRATOR: This might sound appealing, I mean, who doesn't want a fleet of armored Range Rovers to call their own? But this recipe is not for the kind-hearted. It comes at a cost.

JONATHAN BENTON: People look at it and just think it's money. It's just, it's just money crimes. It's not really. It's not like guns and drugs and shipping kilos of cocaine across the Atlantic or anything like that. This is worse. You see the effects of corruption. Nigeria is a fantastic country. It's an amazing country, but you look at it and go: ‘It could be so much more.’ You know? Everybody could have electricity. The amounts of money stolen could have you know, put hundreds of thousands of kids through school. 

NARRATOR: The impact of James Ibori's corruption was far reaching. He was robbing futures from his fellow countrymen, diverting revenue away from education, infrastructure and health services and redirecting it into his own wallet. This man needed to be brought to justice. But why would the case of a corrupt Nigerian politician end up with London’s Metropolitan Police?

JONATHAN BENTON: It's a really, really good question. First of all, most of the money comes back to London. The fact is London is the getaway car.

NARRATOR: It's where James was funneling most of his stolen cash. It's where the money was being laundered, and spent.

JONATHAN BENTON: Fortunately we were funded by the government to do this sort of work. We were there to try and tackle grand corruption, try and deal with the corrupt elite.

NARRATOR: The Metropolitan anti-corruption police team led by Jonathan was working the case with Nigeria's Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, also known as the EFCC. 

JONATHAN BENTON: In many of these cases, you end up sort of forming this kind of mini-international team because you could imagine there's kind of two parts of this puzzle. You've got to work behind the scenes and understand where the money's come from. We needed to understand how this money was getting out of Nigeria. We were working with a great guy called Nuhu Ribadu. He was the head of the agency over there. Really, really, really good investigator.

NARRATOR: So the EFCC in Nigeria, along with the Met police in the UK, start to sniff out Ibori's financial trail.

JONATHAN BENTON: We found his nice house here. We followed all the money, we worked out where the lawyer was. We started to understand which banker was working for him. We knew where the kids went to school, where they went to private school, everything else like that - the evidence just kept getting stronger and stronger and stronger.

NARRATOR: But while Ibori was governor of Delta State, no one could touch him.

JONATHAN BENTON: The law, as it was in Nigeria, he was immune from prosecution. You can't arrest him. We just couldn't do anything with him until he was out of office.

NARRATOR: So, while they waited, they worked.

JONATHAN BENTON: We could monitor bank accounts - even search addresses in the UK and do that sort of thing.

NARRATOR: Then there was a problem. 

JONATHAN BENTON: He got wind of the fact that we were investigating him. Of course he did, because we'd started searching his properties in London. Of course, it's going to get back to them really quickly.

NARRATOR: And that meant trouble.

JONATHAN BENTON: The next thing that happens is Nuhu Ribardu ...

NARRATOR: The head of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission in Nigeria.

JONATHAN BENTON: ... was taken to an address. And taken to a basement.

NARRATOR: A basement is never a good place to be.

JONATHAN BENTON: In the basement were a number of metal cases. Inside those metal cases were $15m in brand new dollar bills. Nuhu was told to take the money. But he was never to go anywhere near James Ibori and he was not to help us. He was to stop investigating and close everything down. He was to take the money and go. 

NARRATOR: Tempting isn't it? Think about it. All your debts paid off. Your kid's university fees sorted, holidays in the Bahamas, all the flash cars you could dream of. 

JONATHAN BENTON: There's a lot of people who would take the money. $15m in Nigeria in those days is a lot of money.

NARRATOR: And that’s not local currency, it is US dollars we’re talking about. An absolute mountain of money. 

JONATHAN BENTON: You can build a beautiful home. You could live an extravagant lifestyle.

NARRATOR: Would you trade your conscience for a truckload of cash? Life could be so easy if you just took the money, right?

JONATHAN BENTON: Thankfully, Nuhu he wasn't prepared to do that. He took the money but he took it straight to the central bank and deposited it and they formally seized it. And this got back to James Ibori and he obviously wasn't happy. So the next thing that happens to Nuhu Ribadu, he's in his car. And he's ambushed. Two people jump out and spray his car with bullets. He thankfully got away and got out alive.

NARRATOR: You thought the suitcases of cash presented a big dilemma? That was nothing. You’ve barely got away from this incident with your life, now you have to decide. To stay or to go? If you stay, you risk your life. If you go, you leave everything. 

JONATHAN BENTON: He got extended family members in Nigeria. He'd got his life in Nigeria, his job. He was supposed to be head of the anti-corruption. 

NARRATOR: Could you walk away from all that? Could you leave your job, your homeland, your people? Nuhu Ribadu decided he had to. 

JONATHAN BENTON: He got his closest family and fled over the border.

NARRATOR: That was probably the right decision. Ibori had shown just how powerful, how dangerous he was. He'd shown the lengths he'd go to to shut down investigations into his corruption.

JONATHAN BENTON: He still had ambitions on going all the way to the top and he needed to stop the person that was standing in his way.

NARRATOR: Remember, Ibori is not a petty gangster. He's one of the political elite, he has all the instruments of the state at his disposal.

JONATHAN BENTON: These are really powerful people who can draw on everything a state can do. They can bring in their security services or spies. They'll bring in the legal system, their attorney general, they’ll even get their cops to turn against us.

NARRATOR: Ibori has effectively used his power to halt the Nigerian side of the investigation. Meanwhile, back in London, Jonathan and his team are closing in on all the dodgy apples based in the UK who have been enabling Ibori's corruption. It's time to meet Ibori's lawyer. 

JONATHAN BENTON: His lawyer was a guy called Bhadresh Gohil. He’s in plush offices just around the corner from the Ritz Hotel in London. He’s a very smooth, sophisticated guy, very clever.

NARRATOR: But not quite clever enough to avoid the eye of the Met’s anti-corruption team.

JONATHAN BENTON: My officers decided - John and Pete and the rest of the team were going to raid it - just do a sort of general search.

NARRATOR: They rummage through draws and cabinets looking for incriminating documents. Nothing. 

JONATHAN BENTON: Hang on a minute, this ain't right. We've kinda missed something here. One of my detectives, a shrewd experienced, just a savvy detective who knew something wasn't right. 

NARRATOR: When you've searched the cupboards and shelves and drawn a blank, where do you look next? 

JONATHAN BENTON: He put his arm up inside a fireplace to search inside it and there were two hard drives hidden in there. And they were gold. He’d kept a record of every contract, of every financial transaction of every company registration document, everything. 

NARRATOR: The evidence was damning. A mass of shell companies that Gohil had set up to help James Ibori launder his money. What they found on those hard drives was enough to charge Gohil. And in 2010, he was put on trial. He pleaded guilty to fraud and laundering money to the tune of US$32m. He was looking at a 10-year prison sentence for his crimes. The rotten apples were beginning to fall from the tree.

JONATHAN BENTON: So we were picking them off one by one by one.

NARRATOR: But unfortunately for Jonathan and his team, it wasn't going to be that simple. Gohil spent the next year in prison concocting an elaborate scheme to bring his case to retrial. And all the while James Ibori remained a free man in Nigeria.

JONATHAN BENTON: He was living like a millionaire's lifestyle, really.

NARRATOR: But he was no longer a politician. He'd now finished his second term and he was out of office, and that meant that he was no longer immune to prosecution. But Ibori didn't seem too stressed. Because although he no longer held an official position of political power, he still wielded influence. Money equals power. But Jonathan’s team were determined to bring down the big man. They spent years flying between the UK and Nigeria collecting evidence against Ibori.

JONATHAN BENTON: John and Pete probably went about 25, 30 times backwards and forwards, sitting in dusty offices, going through records. 

NARRATOR: They were tracing his financial footprints: trawling through accounts, following each credit card transaction, watching every booking, every payment made through every shell company that James Ibori was using to clean and spend his dirty money. 

JONATHAN BENTON: We knew a lot about him, an awful lot about him.

NARRATOR: They were monitoring his every move and the time came when they had to make their move. 

JONATHAN BENTON: I remember the day that the call came through and it was to say, James Ibori was in the air. He was [sitting] in a private jet and he was an hour away from landing in Dubai. What do you want to do about it? 

NARRATOR: At this point, back in 2011, the UK criminal justice system had never successfully extradited anyone from Dubai before. Ibori would have been well aware of this. He knew that the team were getting closer and closer. It was time to escape to a place where he would be untouchable. A place he could live the high life. But Ibori had underestimated the tenacity of the Met police anti-corruption department. 

JONATHAN BENTON: We made the decision. We'd got everything ready to arrest him. And I made the call. When he lands on the tarmac in Dubai, Dubai police take him out. We arrested him. So, James Ibori spends a night in a Dubai prison. We rush all the papers over to Dubai. And we're hoping that the judge is going to keep him in custody and send him back to the UK.

NARRATOR: They're so close, Jonathan can almost taste justice.

JONATHAN BENTON: But there's a twist and there's a turn. They've got something else up their sleeve. He gets released on bail. He's allowed to go and live on the Dubai Palm, you know, the big Palm, in Dubai.

NARRATOR: If you don't know the Palm in Dubai, let me tell you about it ... It's a man-made island in the shape of a palm tree. It's clad in luxurious villas and apartments. It's fringed with white sand. It is the very essence of luxury, wealth, money ... it’s categorically not a prison.

JONATHAN BENTON: So, he's got a smile on his face. He's a free man. He's in Dubai. He's got the slight problem that he's not allowed to leave the country whilst this trivial matter of the British police trying to get him back to London is dealt with but he’s a free man for all intents and purposes.

NARRATOR: Ibori hired a very good lawyer in Dubai who pulled up a legal technicality to block his extradition to the UK. 

JONATHAN BENTON: You can't be extradited if you have an outstanding domestic criminal investigation against you. 

NARRATOR: And so Ibori's legal team have spun a story ...

JONATHAN BENTON: And apparently, apparently James Ibori had been in that state several years earlier, had met a local businessman. The local businessman gave James Ibori US$5m to pay for a housing development and James Ibori already disappeared off with the money. So, I get the background to this case and I just think it's rubbish. 

NARRATOR: To Jonathan, it looks very much like a trumped up story to keep Ibori in Dubai where he can dodge the UK justice system. And after a little persuading, the Dubai police come around to this conclusion too.

JONATHAN BENTON: So, I think almost making up for the slight mistake in allowing him to sort of carry on his millionaire's lifestyle in Dubai, they gave me a surveillance team and they gave me resources to, to covertly watch Ibori.

NARRATOR: And watch him, they did. 

JONATHAN BENTON: We knew a lot about his life. We knew where he went, who he met with, etc. We knew that on a Thursday night, which is the start of the weekend in Dubai, he'd want to go out to a nice club, pick up some high-class prostitutes. That was his lifestyle. That was the world that James Ibori was used to. 

NARRATOR: And on this particular Thursday night ...

JONATHAN BENTON: He gets in his beautiful car, drives off the island. He doesn't know he's got a surveillance team behind him.

NARRATOR: But there they are, watching, chasing, waiting to pounce. Ibori is in for a very different Thursday night than the one he planned. The surveillance vehicle speeds up, James is pulled over, and ... bam. 

JONATHAN BENTON: He's served all the papers. One of my investigators was already waiting to then take him back in handcuffs, put him on a plane and take him back to the UK, which is what we did. So he's gone from the Palm, sort of 48 hours earlier, and he's now in a south London prison.

NARRATOR: Finally, Ibori is behind bars awaiting trial. And the judge has indicated that he’s not going to go easy when it comes to sentencing. 

JONATHAN BENTON: Given the gravity of what he'd been charged with, how much he'd stolen, we'd seized hundreds of millions. 

NARRATOR: So what does James Ibori do?

JONATHAN BENTON: He took the decision that he was going to plead guilty and it was the only way he could get his sentence reduced. To accept the game's over.

NARRATOR: But is it over? By now, you’ve gotten to know the big man pretty well. So what do you think? Would James Ibori just put his hands in the air and admit defeat? Of course not. So what’s the plan? Well, remember Ibori’s lawyer, Bhadresh Gohil? He’s been serving time, and he’s been plotting something big. 

JONATHAN BENTON: He was a rat stuck in the corner who had to lash out and try and work out a way of getting out. Where'd you turn now? 

NARRATOR: Gohil had a nasty trick up his sleeve.

JONATHAN BENTON: Which was the allegation of corruption against the investigating officers.

NARRATOR: What a power move. To accuse the accusers. 

JONATHAN BENTON: This would have been a fantastic way of appealing and getting all those convictions quashed. 

NARRATOR: Gohil hired a legal defense team, and he also hired a firm to help gather information that could help acquit him.

JONATHAN BENTON: It's a London, private detective company sort of thing. And it's run by well two guys I'll call CN and KN. I won't say any more about their names. But they were two very, very experienced ex-Scotland Yard detectives. What makes it slightly more galling and worse is CN - who was the director who ran the company basically - he had worked in our department many, many years before.

NARRATOR: He knew exactly what he was dealing with. He'd worked the anti-corruption system from the inside, and he knew how to play it.

JONATHAN BENTON: He knew what we could do, how far we could probably go, where our limitations might be ...

NARRATOR: And now he was on the payroll of the other side, he could exploit that knowledge to help build a case to get Gohil and Ibori off the hook.

JONATHAN BENTON: They were there for one purpose and one purpose only. And that was to destroy the integrity of the two guys that have been dealing with this case tirelessly now for a number of years. 

NARRATOR: Pete and John, Jonathan's two lead detectives on the Ibori case, were now in the firing line. An elaborate web of lies was being constructed to make it look as though John and Pete were bent cops, as if they had been illegally selling information to the private investigators hired by Gohil. In other words, Pete and John were being framed for corruption. CN and KN had built a dangerously convincing story that could put Jonathan's detectives behind bars.

JONATHAN BENTON: They're shrewd guys. They really are shrewd guys. They've done this all themselves. They've worked behind the scenes for many, many years. They know how it works. 

NARRATOR So how do you go about destroying the integrity of anti-corruption officers? Step one, fake a meeting.

JONATHAN BENTON: You set up a trail. You set up a log. And in your log you say, you've met somebody, a source. The source’s name is John. This is the information they've given you.

NARRATOR: So you make it look as though you've had a covert meeting with one of the anti-corruption officers pursuing your client. Step two, fake a bribe.

JONATHAN BENTON: You even go to the effort of making sure there's bank transactions to show you taking cash out. So you take £5,000 out in cash and you say, you go to a certain location and enter in your log and that you've handed over £5,000. 

NARRATOR: This is getting complicated. It's a murky game played in the grey areas of the law. A game invented by ex-cops and incarcerated lawyers. It's impossible to say who knew what was really going on. Did the team of defense lawyers know what the private investigators were up to? Did they know that documents and logs were being faked to make it look as though Jonathan's officers were taking bribes? Who knows? 

But it's likely that the lawyers involved would have been aware that the information they were receiving from these private investigators was odd, and possibly not entirely above board. So, what to do with this dubiously sourced information? If the information was legitimate, it could get these two men a retrial, it could even get them acquitted. How could the court be expected to believe the allegations against Gohil and Ibori if the two cops on their case were taking bribes themselves? So you see the conundrum. So how can you distance yourself from the source of the evidence while at the same time making sure it swings the case to your advantage? 

JONATHAN BENTON: Well, the perfect opportunity came along. The parliament had a Select Committee hearing evidence on corruption involving the whole dirty, sleazy world of private detectives and whether there was this nexus connection between corruption, police, and private detectives etc. And they were hearing evidence, and the lawyer involved managed to get himself a place giving evidence in front of the Select Committee. He stood up in front of a Select Committee and gave evidence that he knew of anti-corruption cops, right now, that were taking allegedly dirty money to pay for information in London now and it had all been facilitated by private detectives. They then handed a written brief over as well, which included the names of the individuals.

NARRATOR: And why might a lawyer choose to reveal this kind of information in a parliamentary setting?

JONATHAN BENTON: It's all protected. It's parliamentary privilege. You can't be sued later on. It's a perfect bubble to release that information.

NARRATOR: Within this bubble, the legal team could reveal this supposedly damning evidence against Jonathan's officers, without the fear of the law coming back to bite them if the information turned out to be fabricated. Not only were the legal defense team covering their backs, they were also making sure that the information they were releasing would make a splash. Weeks before the hearing, Gohil and his lawyer had anonymously leaked that written brief, the one that was handed over at the hearing and gave the names of Jonathan’s officers to some of the top journalists in the country.

JONATHAN BENTON: The BBC and the Guardian, you know, serious names.

NARRATOR: The media were hungry to publish these astonishing allegations, along with the names of those supposedly involved. But before the allegations were made public, the journalists first approached Scotland Yard for comment, and this promptly kicked off an internal investigation into what was being claimed.

JONATHAN BENTON: Teams of investigators at Scotland Yard poured over this, poured over every single bank, transaction, travel, booking, everything and found out: ‘Well, hang on a minute, you say you were supposed to have met an informant called John - conveniently the name of the guy that's leading the investigation - you're supposed to have met him, but he's in a different country. He's on holiday with his family and he'd been there for two weeks yet, you were supposed to have met him in London’.

NARRATOR: What had been claimed in the leaked documents was starting to look suspicious. The timelines and locations didn’t add up, and John had the alibis to prove it.

JONATHAN BENTON: Some of it we know was absolutely made up and completely fictitious.

NARRATOR: But while Scotland Yard continued their investigation, the story hit the headlines. 

JONATHAN BENTON: That's when really it started to get really, really messy. John and Pete just couldn't believe what was happening to them. They were briefed that there's likely to be something in the media that will personally name them and allege that John had received payment for information. Just imagine you're a detective, you're a police officer, you're working in this really kind of elite position, this specialist position dealing with really high-level cases at Scotland Yard. Your integrity is everything. It's absolutely everything. And suddenly your name's going to appear right across the country alleging that you are a dirty cop and you've been taking money.

NARRATOR: Jonathan wasn't only concerned about the integrity of the case. He was also deeply concerned about the welfare of his officers.

JONATHAN BENTON: You know, it's not unheard of for things like this to happen and innocent people to then suddenly decide there is no way out and they may take their lives or something like that. I had those concerns at the back of my mind, knowing how much these guys had put into it, knowing how much ... they’d given everything for years and years and years. This was so important that they care passionately about tackling corruption. And now the allegation was that they were the dirty side.

NARRATOR: But there was nothing Jonathan could do to stop this thing from snowballing into disaster. The story was out there. 

JONATHAN BENTON: It was going everywhere. Everybody was picking it up. There were loads of cameras outside Scotland Yard.

NARRATOR: John's name was dragged through the mud. The integrity of the Ibori case was in tatters.

JONATHAN BENTON: It's this sort of story that can absolutely undermine an organization.

NARRATOR: But it got worse.

JONATHAN BENTON: I remember the phone call. It was about 9:30pm and I was about to go home. And it was my boss and I knew something was up. I could just tell in his voice. He said: ‘JB, John's going to be arrested in a minute.’ And we'd been informed that the anti-corruption cops - our own internal corruption investigators - were going to go round to John's house and arrest him and search his house, which is what they did, and take him in for questioning. And I think, you know, it's probably one of the lowest points, I think, of my professional career.

Poor old John. You know, this anti-corruption cop now found himself [sitting] in a police cell, staring around, not knowing what was going on.

NARRATOR: John was taken into custody and questioned before being released on bail. But in their investigation, Scotland Yard uncovered more and more evidence to prove John’s innocence. The wild allegations made by Gohil and his lawyers were being picked apart.

JONATHAN BENTON: So, I mean, it all started to unravel. Fortunately they did look at KN and CK.

NARRATOR: That's the two private investigators working for the defense.

JONATHAN BENTON: And they did look at their company and they were looking at what they're doing. 

NARRATOR: The police had a warrant to search their offices, and there they unearthed some damning evidence of their own.

JONATHAN BENTON: So CK was arrested and questioned. And, it all started to unfold - the false trail, the fact that money was supposed to have been paid to people yet they weren't even in the country. So that the whole web of lies and how this had been set up just started really to unfold.

NARRATOR: After a £1m investigation by Scotland Yard's Department of Professional Standards, John was totally exonerated. His name was not only cleared, it was extolled. He was promoted in 2015, and retired with ‘exemplary conduct’ in 2018. 

The documents that had been presented as part of Gohil's defense were proven to be false. Gohil’s trick to try and get his conviction overturned had totally backfired. He was now looking at the possibility of an even longer spell in prison for perverting the course of justice. CK and Gohil were put on trial ... indicted for false accounting. CK even admitted that the invoices detailing the bribery had been faked. But, it’s still not over. Are you ready for yet another unexpected turn? 

JONATHAN BENTON: The case collapsed. The case completely collapsed.

NARRATOR: Jonathan thinks the private investigators designed themselves a 'get out of jail free' card.

JONATHAN BENTON: What do you do if, you know, there is a risk that one day you may find yourself with handcuffs on in front of a judge facing charges, serious charges, that are going to put you in prison for a long time? You make sure you've got an escape plan.

NARRATOR: Before we dive into Jonathan’s theory, we’re going to need a bit of a legal lesson. Listening carefully? When a case comes to trial, the prosecution must share all their evidence with the defendants, so that the trial can proceed fairly. This is called ‘disclosure’ and it’s strict. If the prosecution is found to have withheld relevant material from the defense, the trial can be halted, even discharged. So the team working the prosecution against Gohil and the private investigators have to dredge up everything that relates to the case. That’s hundreds, if not thousands of files from their system. But what if there was a relevant intelligence report hidden somewhere in the system? Somewhere it couldn’t be found? This wouldn’t be difficult to do, according to Jonathan. 

JONATHAN BENTON: The police and the intelligence communities and others, their information doesn't mix, deliberately, for national security reasons. It has to be kept separate. 

NARRATOR: Someone with an intimate knowledge of how police information is stored would know this, someone like, let’s say, an ex-cop turned private investigator? 

JONATHAN BENTON: The defense team and perhaps one of the defendants, knew material existed that would never come to light because of where it was held.

NARRATOR: And so, come trial day, the defense can claim that not everything relating to the case has been disclosed. And that's enough to bring the whole thing crashing down. And crash it did. 

JONATHAN BENTON: Completely fell through. He was free. Bhadresh Gohil? It's great news for him. Great news. He wasn't going to prison for another 10 years.

NARRATOR: Jonathan is not happy about the collapse of the final trial. He feels that Bhadresh Gohil and the two private investigators meddled with justice, and didn’t get what they deserved. But Jonathan’s immensely proud of the fact his team were able to put the big man, James Ibori, behind bars.

JONATHAN BENTON: Just a couple of detectives in London can take on such a powerful guy and eventually take him down ... I think it's quite impressive.

NARRATOR: Gohil and the private detectives escaped prosecution for essentially framing Jonathan’s colleagues, but at least some of the players in this dirty game were served a portion of what they deserved. Gohil was given a 10-year sentence for money laundering. Ibori pleaded guilty to 10 counts of money laundering and conspiracy to defraud. He admitted to stealing US$250m from the Nigerian public purse. He received a 13-year prison sentence for his crimes. The mighty had fallen. Jonathan and his team had pushed them. Now it was time to start returning some of Ibori's ill-gotten assets.

JONATHAN BENTON: Well, over $100m, more than that. And some of it's already gone back to Nigeria, um, which is fantastic.

NARRATOR: What Jonathan and his team achieved in the Ibori case sent a message to others stealing money from the Nigerian public purse.

JONATHAN BENTON: Look, all the crimes you've committed. You might be able to try and shoot people and bribe people and bribe the attorney general and get your way out of, avoid, justice in Nigeria. But you'll face justice in the UK and we'll put you in front of a judge. We'll put you in front of a judge that you cannot bribe. We'll put you in an environment where you'll just be tested on the facts and that's what happened.

NARRATOR: Today, Jonathan works in the private sector, but continues to work tirelessly against corruption. Life has moved on for Jonathan since the Ibori case, but he still thinks about the big man.

JONATHAN BENTON: There's probably a little bit of almost mutual respect. He knows he's a shrewd cookie. He got caught. There was a big fight and we won, and he lost, and thankfully for the people of Nigeria he lost.

NARRATOR: I’m Vanessa Kirby. Join us next week for another mission with ... True Spies. We all have valuable spy skills, and our experts are here to help you discover yours. Get an authentic assessment of your spy skills, created by a former head of training at British intelligence at SPYSCAPE.com.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this podcast are those of the subject. These stories are told from their perspective and their authenticity should be assessed on a case-by-case basis.

Guest Bio

Since 2018, Jonathan Benton has advised the World Bank on corruption while running his own asset recovery firm. Before that, Benton worked at Scotland Yard. He is the former head of the UK’s International Corruption Unit, and he has more than a decade of experience as a hostage, crisis and kidnap negotiator. Among his many cases, Benton led Scotland Yard’s fight to ensure former Nigerian politician James Ibori was extradited and brought to the UK to face money laundering charges and prison.

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