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British Conservative aide gets more scrutiny in hacking scandal

Former staffer Andy Coulson, hired as communications chief by Prime Minister David Cameron, is scrutinized for receiving newspaper payments and perks while working for the party.

August 24, 2011|By Henry Chu, Los Angeles Times
  • Andy Coulson, the former spokesman for British Prime Minister David Cameron, leaves a police station after posting bail in South London on July 8, 2011. Rupert Murdoch's News Corp. gave cash and benefits to Coulson, the former editor of the News of the World tabloid when he worked for David Cameron in opposition, the BBC said Tuesday, in a new embarrassment for the British leader.
Andy Coulson, the former spokesman for British Prime Minister David Cameron,… (Reuters )

Reporting from London — British Prime Minister David Cameron faced more questions about his judgment Tuesday amid reports that one of his top aides continued to receive money from the News of the World even after quitting the tabloid because of the phone-hacking scandal and signing up to work for the Conservative Party.

Cameron hired Andy Coulson as the party's chief communications guru in 2007, shortly after Coulson stepped down as editor of the News of the World. His resignation followed the conviction and imprisonment of the newspaper's royal affairs reporter for illegally accessing voice mail messages left by Princes William and Harry.

Yet even after starting to work for the then-opposition Conservatives — at a rumored annual salary of more than half a million dollars, according to the exchange rate at the time — Coulson continued receiving severance payments for several months from News International, the company that owned the now-defunct News of the World, the BBC reported.

In effect, Coulson was accepting hundreds of thousands of dollars from arguably Britain's most influential media organization while also working for the Conservative Party, which hired him to help solidify its appeal to voters who read bestselling tabloids. The party won last year's election partly on the strength of its endorsements by titles belonging to News International, including the Sun and the Times of London.

There is no suggestion that Coulson acted illegally in receiving the payments, which were installments of his agreed-upon severance package. Coulson also maintained use of a company car and was covered by the company's medical plan for months after quitting the News of the World, the BBC reported.

But critics said it created the perception of a possible conflict of interest and reflected badly on Cameron. The prime minister has been on the hot seat for bringing Coulson into his inner circle at 10 Downing St. after the election despite warnings that Coulson's editorship at the News of the World and the phone-hacking allegations could come back to haunt them both.

Earlier this year, Coulson resigned from the prime minister's team as a result of his association with the tabloid. He was arrested and released on bail last month by police investigating the charges of industrial-scale phone hacking at the paper.

Cameron has since tried to distance himself from his former aide, saying that he had hired Coulson to give the former editor "a second chance."

Tom Watson, a lawmaker with the opposition Labor Party, told the BBC that he would ask Britain's electoral commission to look into whether Coulson's severance payments could constitute an unreported "donation in kind" by News International to the Conservative Party.

henry.chu@latimes.com

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