Police poster boy cleared of fraud alleges smear campaign by own force

John Buttress says he was repeatedly falsely accused because he tried to expose corrupt practice in Greater Manchester police

John Buttress was a poster boy for Greater Manchester police. Ten years ago he appeared in adverts for the force’s high potential development scheme, which cherry-picks the brightest and best for a fast-track programme. “I never imagined I could get so far in my force,” read the slogan above a picture of Buttress in uniform. “I moved from constable to chief inspector in five years.”

There’s another thing Buttress could never have imagined: standing trial on a fraud charge instigated by his own colleagues – a charge that he claimed in court had been brought only after he stood up to senior officers whom he accused of bullying and persecution.

The 48-year-old father-of-two was in the dock at Liverpool crown court last week accused of minor mortgage fraud. It would have been an unremarkable case had it not marked the finale of a series of costly investigations into his financial affairs carried out by Greater Manchester police (GMP) at a time when the force was facing unprecedented budget cuts.

He claims that multiple internal police inquiries were conducted, leading him to become so paranoid that he ended up burying a police computer in a remote field in Wales in order to preserve evidence. He insists he was exonerated in every instance, but not before being arrested twice and having his properties searched by 23 officers. At one stage the police helicopter was used to take aerial photographs of his Welsh home.

Last Thursday Buttress was cleared by a jury of failing to tell his mortgage provider that he was occasionally letting out part of his north Wales farmhouse to holidaymakers. The charge was that he illegally took out a cheaper personal mortgage rather than a buy-to-let policy. It took the jury 20 minutes to reach the unanimous decision, having heard glowing testimony from a string of high-ranking policemen including Craig Mackey, the deputy chief constable of the Metropolitan police.

The verdict brings to an end what Buttress later claimed was “an orchestrated smear campaign” waged against him by some elements of Greater Manchester police (GMP).

He told the court that his troubles began when he headed up a new stop-and-search programme in 2012 that proved unpopular among many officers. Under his leadership, the disproportionate number of ethnic minorities searched by police fell dramatically following the introduction of a radio system that put an end to the force automatically recording the names and addresses of everyone searched. He alleges he was also targeted after standing up for an Asian colleague who claimed to have suffered racially motivated ill-treatment within GMP.

After clashing with his superiors at the Bolton division in GMP, where he had arrived in September 2011, Buttress found himself under investigation. First he was accused of insider share dealing in the electronics company that provided the police stop-and-search technology. He told the jury that he immediately suspected his superior in Bolton, Supt Steve Nibloe, had made the complaint.

Nibloe had taken against Buttress from “day one” after he had made allegations of bullying, the court heard. Buttress said he was assured by GMP top brass that Nibloe was not responsible for the referral, only for the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) later to confirm that he had indeed made the tipoff. In court, Buttress told the jury he couldn’t believe what had happened to him. “Naively I didn’t think, excuse the expression, that my employer would try to stitch me up.”

According to Buttress, no sooner had he proved that he had never in his life bought or traded in any shares than he found himself accused of fiddling his mileage expenses claims. In the end he was found to have significantly under-claimed.

In addition, Buttress claims he was falsely accused of:

• Money laundering.

• Underpaying council tax (he says the investigation discovered he had in fact overpaid, and he was refunded £1,779.41 by Wrexham council).

• Misleading his mortgage company when borrowing money for a divorce settlement.

• Evading income tax.

• Having unregistered business interests in the construction industry.

• Making a fraudulent claim for flood damage at his home.

When asked by the Guardian, GMP did not dispute that any of these investigations were carried out. It said: “GMP will review the claims made by CI Buttress and establish whether there are any matters requiring further investigation.”

In the mortgage case Buttress was originally charged with misleading his lender by not living at the property he had given as his home address. This charge was dropped the week before the trial after Buttress’s defence team were able to prove that the prosecution had originally failed to disclose crucial evidence that exonerated him.

The court heard that as part of an investigation by GMP’s counter-corruption unit, two officers interviewed a woman from Intelligent Finance, Buttress’s mortgage company, about where Buttress was actually living. The woman told them that on the company’s criteria Buttress was indeed living at his home address. Yet the page of the police statement in which she said this was missing when it was submitted as evidence, the court heard. Only when the judge ordered the original tape recording of the interview to be released was Buttress able to commission a full transcript and prove his case.

He appears to have been pursued for the most minor alleged violations. At one point he claims he was put under pressure to record his role as a voluntary unpaid church organist in his village as a formal business interest – a demand only dropped after an intervention from a senior officer. GMP did not refute this version of events when contacted by the Guardian.

According to Buttress, the most “worrying and sinister” element of the campaign against him occurred in December 2012 when investigators were granted access to his police computer. “Shortly after this access was granted, the entire file relating to the inappropriate treatment of the Asian policeman was deleted from the police system. This file included specific reference to the leaking of confidential police information to the press,” he told the Guardian.

Buttress says that unbeknown to whoever carried out the deletions, he had already become so paranoid about his own force that he had taken the precaution of backing up the evidence on an encrypted file on a computer, and burying the whole computer, wrapped in two plastic bags, on farmland in north Wales.

“This was well before I was aware that I too had been targeted for investigation,” said Buttress. “Just one month later the counter-corruption unit arrested me and searched my home, removing all the computers, memory sticks, electronic devices and other evidence from my address and that of my partner, Nicola.” GMP did not refute the allegation of file deletion.

Buttress believes he was targeted and that he knows why: “My belief is that I have been subjected to a series of maliciously motivated investigations simply because I attempted to expose corrupt and inappropriate practice within the force. I believe that I have been targeted as a whistleblower and that repeated malicious investigations have been launched, involving illegal and deliberate phone-hacking, as part of an orchestrated smear campaign to discredit me.”

But he has always maintained that GMP picked on the wrong guy. He was determined to protect his previously unblemished police record, which once even led to a cameo during the Queen’s Christmas speech. In 2004, having just been promoted to chief inspector, he pursued and arrested a gunman at 3am on Christmas morning in the centre of Stockport. CCTV footage of the offender brandishing the gun was used by the BBC to back the Queen’s speech the following year as gun control legislation was tightened. Buttress was also praised for his work managing a high-profile programme of projects delivering the police’s chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear preparedness across the UK.

Buttress has been suspended on full pay since August 2013. Despite it all, he says he wants to go back to work for GMP.

Asked by the Guardian how much the three-year investigation had cost, GMP said it was impossible to calculate. The Manchester Evening News has suggested the bill could run to £1m.

Following Buttress’s acquittal, GMP’s deputy chief constable Ian Hopkins said the force “fully respected” the verdict. But he dismissed claims Buttress made in court accusing Nibloe, his superior in the Bolton division, of bullying.

“The claims were subject to a legitimate grievance process and formally investigated and reviewed three times, by a chief superintendent, an assistant chief constable and finally by myself and the head of human resources. In all three stages we found no evidence to substantiate the allegation of bullying,” said Hopkins.

“GMP will always take allegations about its staff seriously and where necessary will carry out criminal investigations. The public have a right to expect that allegations regarding the integrity of serving officers are properly explored and tested.

“In addition to the criminal justice process, the police service has its own internal code of ethics and standards of professional behaviour. CI Buttress’s actions will now be subject to formal internal assessment to establish whether he may have a case to answer for gross misconduct, misconduct, or no case to answer.”


Helen Pidd, northern editor

The GuardianTramp

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