An employment tribunal hears how a friendship turned to mutual recrimination as ex-private investigator sues former client for alleged breach of verbal contract
In bringing his case against Morgan Sindallfor breach of verbal contract, former private investigator Andrew Campbell Stewart set out for the tribunal his claims that his once-close relationship with a trusted friend and client descended into paranoia, suspicion, and a broken promise that left him without a job.
Representing himself in court, Mr Stewart described how he and Morgan Sindall Fit Out managing director Steve Elliott used to attend family functions and football matches together.
Now, almost eight years later and far from friends, the two men gave very different versions of the events that had led them to face each other in court.
As head of Morgan Sindall Fit Out, Mr Elliott is responsible for both Overbury and Morgan Lovell. He reports directly to the group’s main board and Morgan Sindall plc chief executive Paul Smith.
Opening proceedings at London’s central employment tribunal, Mr Stewart said he felt betrayed by Mr Elliott, with whom he had developed a firm friendship after being hired by Morgan Sindall companies “50-plus times over a 10-year period”, he claimed.
The work he was asked to do for the group included investigations into corrupt practices by junior managers whom it believed were offering contracts in exchange for “kickbacks”.
“My work was of a sensitive nature and required a high level of trust,” he told the tribunal. “Predominantly it was uncovering dishonesty and fraud within the company.”
His work had been so effective, he said, he had ended up in trouble with the authorities.
In July 2009, he was arrested as the police investigated allegations against him relating to his work, much of it for Morgan Sindall and its subsidiaries. In May 2010, he was charged by the Crown Prosecution Service with conspiracy to commit fraud by false representation.
Facing a potentially lengthy prison sentence and with clients deserting his company, Ryan Surveillance Services, he sought help and advice from his friend Mr Elliott, who had already lent him £8,500 after his arrest.
In an earlier witness statement he said: “In July (2009) he gave me £6,000 in cash as a loan. He explained his largesse and said he had contributed £15,000 to Madeline McCann and was purchasing a £2 million house.”
According to Mr Stewart, the Overbury boss then went further. During a walk along the Thames at Putney in late June 2010 Mr Elliott offered him a two-year fixed-term contract to work for Overbury in either its health and safety or environmental services departments, Mr Stewart told the tribunal.
“Given my experience with Greenpeace working on the Rainbow Warrior, I agreed to the latter. Mr Elliott said the payment was designed to assist me as
the claims I was facing were predominantly for work done for Morgan Sindall and Overbury.”
Mr Stewart said he was told he would be paid £8,000 every two months and would be retrained so he could start a fresh career now that he would no longer be able to work as a PI, subject to two conditions.
“The terms meant I had to be found not guilty… and ensure that no mention of Morgan Sindall or its companies appeared in the press. Additionally, he said that no company employees could be called as witnesses in the trial.
“I thought about it carefully; I needed to feed my family and it was an attractive offer. I agreed, we shook hands and I was pleased.”
To illustrate the lengths Mr Elliott would go to avoid negative attention, Mr Stewart described a meeting at Morgan Sindall’s offices in the days leading up to the agreement.
Mr Stewart told the tribunal how, on being invited to a meeting with Mr Elliott and his number two, Chris Booth, Mr Elliott had insisted he leave his mobile phone and all “electronic devices” at his desk before finding a quiet place to talk.
He claims Mr Elliott insisted on leaving Overbury’s Newman Street offices, walking instead to the Morgan Lovell offices at nearby Noel Street and eventually settling on a basement “storage room” to conduct their conversation.
Once in the basement, Mr Elliott removed every telephone line from its socket, Mr Stewart told the tribunal.
Mr Elliott described this account as “absolute rubbish”, although he acknowledged they had been forced to leave Newman Street due to a lack of available meeting rooms.
Mr Stewart described changing his company name at Mr Elliott’s request – first to RSS and then to Spectrum – in a bid to avoid arousing suspicions among Morgan Sindall staff processing his invoices.
Mr Elliott confirmed he had asked for the name change. He said: “The type of work you were doing was sensitive and we did not want some kind of surveillance invoice being seen by junior staff.”
But when the Crown decided not to bring evidence against Mr Stewart and the case was dropped in May 2011, Mr Stewart claims the deal was not honoured. The new job failed to materialise, leaving him without work and with little prospect of a fresh career, having signed a deal with prosecutors that he would no longer work as a PI.
After this he made contact with Morgan Sindall executive chairman John Morgan to complain that the deal had not been honoured. Mr Morgan referred him back to Mr Booth.
Mr Stewart told the tribunal that, when he was not offered what had been originally agreed, he decided to take legal action.
He said: “Mr Booth asked me ‘what you would think if I offered you £60,000?’ I said the contract was already offering £50k per annum plus training costs.
“He said a starter in the environmental division would receive £30k so £60k would represent two years’ salary.
“Mr Booth at this meeting stated that as a consequence of me contacting the chairman a permanent position was not going to happen. I believe that under the circumstances there has been a breach of contract.”
Overbury does not deny that Mr Stewart worked for the company, his formerly close relationship with Mr Elliott, or that any of the meetings took place.
It acknowledged Mr Elliott agreed to pay Mr Stewart about £50,000 for non-PI-related “project work” in the period between his arrest and the criminal proceedings being dropped and after the meeting at the company’s Noel Street offices with Mr Booth and Mr Elliott.
Mr Elliott told the court that after agreeing the figure for “project work” with Mr Booth he consulted Overbury finance director Paul Newton.
“I recall that Paul said something like ‘you are mad’.
But he “absolutely refutes” that a fixed-term two-year contract was offered, or that he ever behaved in a clandestine manner, insisting on phones being given up or wires unplugged.
He told the court Mr Stewart was a “desperate” man attempting to extort money from a firm under threat of reputational damage.
Under cross-examination by Claire McCann, a barrister from Cloisters chambers instructed by Overbury’s legal team from Pinsent Masons, Mr Stewart was shown photos of the basement meeting room.
What he had described as a “storage room” was shown in the photos to be a normal office. Mr Stewart claimed it must have been refurbished.
Ms McCann said the letter Mr Stewart sent to John Morgan failed to include vital details of the claim he later set out in his witness statement.
Mr Stewart said the letter was not comprehensive. The letter was 10 pages long, Ms McCann countered.
She said the language of the letter, using words such as “understand” and “expect” demonstrated “this was all just expectation and assumption”.
Mr Stewart accepted that “final salary agreements weren’t nailed down”. And he conceded he had borrowed £8,500 from Mr Elliott, not £6,000 as he originally stated. “But I did not beg for it,” he added.
She put to Mr Stewart that he was “weaving together truths, half-truths and lies to fabricate an offer of employment from your friend Mr Elliott”.
She claimed he had given out Mr Elliott’s personal mobile number to journalists at national newspapers in an attempt to scare the company into a financial settlement, something Mr Stewart denied.
She said: “You used the threat of reputational damage and you have now brought misconceived proceedings for breach of contract. You would need a long list of very industry-specific qualifications to do those jobs. So even on your case, Mr Stewart, this was just a hope or an intention expressed by one mate to another.”
She said there had been “no agreement regarding the role, salary, no description about what is meant by ‘getting through’ the criminal case, there is no clarity about reputational damage”.
Under cross-examination Mr Elliott said: “I have been a tremendous friend [to Mr Stewart] personally. Not only have I supported him financially but also I have given him a lot of moral support.
“I absolutely refute that I made such an offer either at the Putney meeting or at any time. I note that Andy has not been able to produce any evidence to this offer. He never wrote to me, emailed or mentioned to me anything about this alleged employment contract.
“The first time he mentioned the alleged offer was almost a year later on 10 June 2011. It would be inconceivable that I would ever make such an offer unilaterally.”
Mr Elliott claims he was visited by Mr Stewart on 10 June 2011 when he mentioned his deal with prosecutors not to work as a private investigator.
“He said something like ‘I want to talk to you about a job’.
“I was puzzled by this. The company had helped out already in giving Andy the regular contractor work over the previous year. I remember asking him something like ‘what job?’
“I remember Andy then waved his hand in my face and said ‘don’t worry – it will only be for a couple of years until I get myself back on my feet.’
“He then leant back in his chair and said that if he did not get what he wanted he said something like ‘reputationally it could be awful for the company’.
“This last statement made me cross and I became very angry at the meeting.
“I was in shock. I went to my car and drove off. After about five or 10 minutes I stopped and texted Andy. I felt really bad – it seemed like a friendship was at an end.”
“I was really shocked and angry that Andy tried to threaten me into giving him a job with (Overbury). But on reflection I think that with his career and reputation down the pan, he had become a desperate man and has resorted to these sorts of tactics.”
If Mr Stewart wins the tribunal, the maximum payout he could expect is £25,000.
The tribunal continues.