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Exclusive: Paula Vennells was tipped off about a “covert operations team” that could alter subpostmaster accounts two years before she appeared in Parliament

Paula Vennells was told by senior postal officials about a “covert operations team” at Fujitsu headquarters in Bracknell that could remotely manipulate the accounts of sub-postmasters.

Groundbreaking new tapes, obtained by Channel 4 News, reveal that postal boss Paula Vennells was aware of an allegation about the existence of the remote unit at Fujitsu’s Bracknell headquarters two years before she appeared in Parliament.

In never-before-heard audio recordings from 2013, two Second Sight forensic accountants – hired by the Post to conduct an independent investigation – twice confirmed to witness advocate Susan Crichton that Paula Vennells had been informed of the allegation and that they were investigating initiated.

“[Paula] knows about the accusation. She knows we’re working on it” – Crichton’s voice in the newly released audio.

“She has everything. “I tried to inform Paula: as soon as I have evidence that there is a problem, she will find out the next minute,” Crichton adds.

The latest edition of Channel 4 News tonight comes a week after the program revealed that the Post Office and Fujitsu knew their computer system could remotely access and adjust sub-postmasters’ accounts.

Evidence of possible remote access to the Horizon system by Fujitsu employees was central to the ongoing post office scandal.

“My supervisor introduced me to the remaining undercover teams.”

Former postal union official Michael Rudkin, who played a central role in the ITV dramatization in January for his role in first discovering and reporting Fujitsu’s secret operations unit, is hearing the tapes for the first time tonight.

When shown the Channel 4 News footage, he recalls the moment he was shown remote access and real-time customization during a visit to Fujistu headquarters in Bracknell on August 19, 2008.

In startling revelations, Rudkin tells Alex Thomson: “My supervisor introduced me to those who were still part of the undercover team. I was surprised. He changed the numbers of one of the branch accounts on a live terminal in the boiler room at Fujitsu headquarters. I asked him: Did you just change these numbers and is this real time? The answer was: “Yes”. I said, ‘Are you absolutely sure?’ ‘Yes,’ this is real time.”

Michael’s union had been categorically told by the post office that it was impossible to secretly access the subpostmasters’ accounts.

“Realizing my contempt for what I had just seen, I was more or less simply led upstairs and pushed out the door like a common criminal,” he adds.

Rudkin shared his shocking findings with forensic accountant Ron Warmington four years later as part of the Second Sight investigation.

As shown in the ITV drama, tonight he recalled his phone conversation with Warmington when he shared the bombshell email.

Based on the email, Rudkin calls it: “The Smoking Gun.” “To me there seemed to be a long period of dead silence, to which Ron responded, ‘Oh my bloody good God.’ “They live in a world full of shit now,” he remembers.

Rudkin tried to whistle. The day after his visit to Fujitsu, he woke up at home with one

In his bedroom, the auditor accused his wife Susan – who ran the post office they owned – of an accounting shortfall of £44,000.

The Post Office continued to deny that he had ever visited the Bracknell site. He says he wrote to Paula Vennells to inform her directly about the remote access.

The Post Office’s chief lawyer, Paula Vennells, twice claims to be aware of the Bracknell unit

On the tapes, Rudkin hears Post Office executives being briefed on Bracknell’s operations, as he is personally named on the tapes for his involvement in exposing the unit.

In the new audio recording, The Post’s senior lawyer Susan Crichton admits twice that Paula Vennells was informed of the allegation regarding a covert operations unit in Bracknell.

Second Sight investigators and Alwen Lyons, executive director of the post office, are present on the call. They show for the first time Ron Warmington warning that Paula Vennells could be questioned by James Arbuthnot – who is campaigning on behalf of the sub-postmasters – about the Bracknell covert operation.

“When James says something like, ‘And where do you stand with this claim about the Bracknell covert operations team as mentioned by Rudkin?'” Warmington asks in the newly released audio recording.

“Well, look, this is a specific case. We will come back to this when we have completed the investigation,” Crichton replies.

“Yes, well, as long as she doesn’t come back and say, ‘Look, what is this Bracknell problem, what is he talking about?’; “Oh, we’ve known that for two months,” Warmington asks.

“She knows about the accusation. “She knows we’re working on it,” Crichton replies.

“Oh, that’s fine then. Good.” Warmington replies.

“We mentioned it to her. We’re all thinking, ‘Well, this is all very strange,'” Crichton concludes.

Seven years later, in 2020, Paula Vennells wrote personally to Darren Jones MP, then chair of the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee, stating that she had “raised this question repeatedly, both internally and at Fujitsu, and always the received same answer: that.” It was not possible to change branch records remotely without the subpostmaster’s knowledge.”

Later in the same volume, Crichton again refers to her role in assessing Paula Vennells on the issues identified by the independent inquiry.

“She has everything. “I tried to let Paula know that as soon as I have evidence that you know there is a problem, the next minute she knows about it,” Crichton says.

“Paula agrees that the original scope of the investigation did not go so far as to consider whether there was a miscarriage of justice.”

Tonight’s tapes also include postal officials talking to Paula Vennells about how the independent inquiry could raise the specter of a “miscarriage of justice”, despite reassuring Parliament two years later that such concerns would “surface”.

They advise investigators that this is outside their scope of investigation, while lead attorney Susan Crichton clarifies her scope of work.

“Ian was talking to Paula earlier. And we had a few conversations this morning. Therefore, Paula agrees that the original scope of the investigation did not go so far as to consider whether there was a miscarriage of justice, Ron and Ian. So that’s not what she’s looking for. It looks for the systematic – or rather systemic, not systematic – systemic weakness in the Horizon systems. But not, as I said, the next point is not whether or not it resulted in a miscarriage of justice or suspension of a sub-postmaster. Because I think once you find it, it’s up to us to look for it and see what impact it might have if that happens,” Crichton says.

Two years later, Vennells told MPs at a select committee appearance: “If there had been any miscarriages of justice, it would have been very important to me and the Post that we would have brought them to light.”

The Post’s general counsel asks how to stop the MP’s interference

As pressure mounted over a potentially growing scandal in the early 2010s, the records show for the first time the Post’s active desire to limit political interference.

On the tapes, Susan Crichton can be heard saying: “It is necessary to have some sort of plan to end this process.” I mean, even to the extent that MPs are now prevented from filing cases. So how do we complete the MP side of the process? And what would work for MPs? And what can we sell to MPs? And how quickly can we do that?

She continues: “So is there a way, and I’m thinking out loud here, is there a way to end the MP cases and make James and his friends happy so that they basically just disappear?”

Second Sight’s accountants were later fired from the post office; They say because they are too close to the truth.

Michael Rudkin reacts: “Rudkin, you were right!”

Channel 4 News played these recordings to Michael Rudkin, some fifteen years after his now infamous visit to Fujitsu.

Chief correspondent Alex Thomson visits the house he still lives in with his wife Susan, near the post office that was expropriated from them over fifteen years ago.

He joins those calling for police action rather than waiting years for the public inquiry to conclude.

As he comments on the tapes, he becomes emotional, saying, “The moment I heard it for the first time, it was a feeling of elation, saying, ‘Rudkin, you were right!'” The second is the sad thought : “Why did my wife and children have to go through this?” For all these years. We should not have had to endure this level of oppression. And for that I hope they are sent to hell and back.” They said: “The moment I first heard it, it was a feeling of exhilaration as I said, ‘Rudkin, you were right!’. The second is the sad thought: “Why did my wife and children have to go through this?” For all these years. We should not have had to endure this level of oppression. And for that I hope they are sent to hell and back.”

“Susan has been thinking about suicide. The risk of her overdosing and killing herself was very high. She was so depressed.”

“It’s not just us who are affected by this. It’s the whole family. The way you are shunned in the local community – people whisper, “No smoke without fire.” Susan’s reputation and mine are simply tarnished. And I cannot for the life of me understand why it is taking so long for the Metropolitan Police to get to grips with this. “Someone needs to be held accountable,” Rudkin concludes.

Today’s exclusive report comes a week before the independent public statutory inquiry into the Horizon Post Office scandal resumes.

The research was commissioned in 2020 to produce a report on the implementation and shortcomings of the Horizon IT system at the post office throughout its lifespan.

Fujitsu and the Post declined to comment on the allegations made in this report, citing the public inquiry currently investigating this scandal. The Post says it is “fully focused on finding out the truth about what happened.”

Paula Vennells, Susan Crichton and Alwen Lyons did not respond to Channel 4 News’ requests for comment.

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