England First Party exposes Preston Mafia
2012 is a Guild year in Preston – a year when Prestonians are meant to be proud of their home city. Preston Guild is a unique civic celebration, held every twenty years since 1328.
Yet this year there is a shadow over Preston Guild – a ghost at the feast.
For the record of the man who was Preston’s Guild Mayor at the last festivities, and who had led the City Council for the previous decade – the late Cllr Harold Parker – is again under scrutiny as part of an investigation into what was termed the “Preston Mafia”, a description coined not by political opponents but by his own Borough Treasurer!
The England First Party believes that both the Labour and Conservative Parties have serious questions to answer about corruption and political chicanery in Preston, and that a full enquiry is needed to get to the bottom of the scandal.
On 24th April 2012 the disgraced Labour politician Frank McGrath was ordered to serve a further two year prison sentence, after failing to obey a court order to repay almost £1 million of the proceeds from his life of crime. This in itself might seem bad enough: but to understand the full dimensions of the affair we must look back to 7th August 1991, when a team of twenty Lancashire Police detectives carried out simultaneous raids across Preston.
The targets of these police raids included Preston Town Hall and the homes and offices of Cllr Harold Parker, leader of the council since 1982, and his deputy Cllr Frank McGrath.
Rumours had been circulating for years about the improper business relationship between these two senior Preston councillors and Owen Oyston, a millionaire businessman and supporter of the Labour Party, featured as early as March 1984 in an investigation by the BBC’s Watchdog programme. A particular focus of these investigations was the redevelopment of Preston Docks.
Cllr Harold Parker effectively controlled Preston Council’s decisions over the dockland development while being paid a £450 monthly retainer by Oyston, who had a major financial interest in the project, and receiving numerous other benefits in kind from Oyston interests. Meanwhile his deputy leader Cllr McGrath became a millionaire in 1987 through his investment in Oyston’s company Red Rose Radio, which owned local radio stations in Preston, Manchester, Leeds and Cardiff.
The police raids in 1991 were codenamed ‘Operation Angel’ and led to criminal charges against Frank McGrath and several of Preston Council’s most senior officials, including the chief executive and deputy chief executive. Also raided were the offices of Tustin Developments, a company owned by Iranian exile Hossein Ghiassi and his California-based brother, who had won substantial contracts for the Preston Docklands project.
Frank McGrath was charged with multiple counts of fraud and theft in January 1992. Yet despite millions of pounds being spent on ‘Operation Angel’, his trial and almost all of the subsequent ones collapsed. It now seems that the interests of justice took second place to political machinations. Much of the campaign against Owen Oyston and his corrupt Labour cronies had been funded and organised secretly by prominent Conservatives, notably:
- Lord Blaker, former Conservative MP for Blackpool South, who served as a Foreign Office and Defence minister in Mrs Thatcher’s governments during the 1980s. He died in 2009.
- Sir Robert Atkins, Conservative MP for Preston North from 1979 to 1997 and an MEP for North West England from 1999 to 2009.
- Bill Harrison, property tycoon and millionaire Tory donor who regularly hosted Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher at his Preston home during her visits to the North West. He died in August 1999. (Like his arch-enemy Frank McGrath, Mr Harrison lived in the affluent Preston suburb of Fulwood, though in even grander style at Greyfriars Hall.)
This Tory trio worked through local Preston residents activist Michael Murrin and Blackpool based private detective Chris More, who managed to access the confidential bank and income tax details of Cllrs Parker and McGrath. Yet when it came to prosecuting the targets of Operation Angel, the Tory party at national level proved most unhelpful, as did some very senior police officers.
Mrs Thatcher’s Attorney General Nicholas Lyell prevented the release of files implicating Balfour Beatty, the construction giant and major Tory donor, in the web of corruption surrounding the Preston Docklands development. This was very good news for Labour’s Cllr Frank McGrath, as it seriously handicapped the Operation Angel investigation into his affairs.
Fortunately for McGrath, although the Conservative Party were no friends of his, they were on very friendly terms indeed with Balfour Beatty, which had been founded a century ago by the Conservative MP for Hampstead, George Balfour, and retained close links to the Tories. Operation Angel happened to coincide with the controversy over the construction of the Pergau Dam in Malaysia, with more than £200 million of British taxpayers money authorised by Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd. A judicial review later found that Hurd had acted unlawfully in approving the Pergau project, which was being constructed by Balfour Beatty and another company with strong Tory connections – Cementation International, employers of the Prime Minister’s son, Mark Thatcher.
So although Balfour Beatty’s own offices had been raided and police had discovered a payment of £140,000 from Balfour Beatty to Cllr Frank McGrath’s Isle of Man company bank account ‘Global Enterprises’, Attorney General Sir Nicholas Lyell decided at the end of 1993 to drop all aspects of the case that involved this major Tory donor. Cllr McGrath arrogantly told the press: “I offered no comment to the police when they questioned me and I understand the company did the same.”
No doubt Balfour Beatty were relieved when they were able to resolve their own embarrassing involvement in the Preston Docklands scandal by paying back £1.3 million to Preston Council in 1998.
Owen Oyston might have thought he had escaped the long arm of the law with the collapse of Operation Angel, but justice caught up with him in May 1996 when he was convicted of rape. Oyston’s friend Peter Martin, a former policeman, had regularly supplied girls from his model agency. One of them – a 16 year old girl – was raped by Oyston, who was jailed for six years. Later that year Peter Martin was jailed for 20 years after admitting a series of rapes and assaults on young girls recruited through his model agency.
Cllr Frank McGrath went on to become Chief Executive of the Oyston owned Blackpool Football Club, and it took a few more years for his luck to run out. During 2003 McGrath met convicted criminal Silvano Turchet, who was on day release from a prison sentence. McGrath described himself as an accountant and business adviser, though he had no accountancy qualifications. Nevertheless for some reason Turchet decided that McGrath was the ideal man to help him with his next business enterprise.
This turned out to be the large scale importation of heroin, which Turchet brought in via a private plane, flying into a small wartime airfield at Sleap, Shropshire. In May 2006 Turchet was caught red-handed when police raided the airfield and found him about to unload a cargo including heroin, cocaine and ecstasy. He is now serving a 21-year prison sentence.
During 2004 and 2005 McGrath had laundered hundreds of thousands of pounds of drug money for Turchet. Despite claiming that he was entirely ignorant of the source of these funds, McGrath was convicted of money laundering in February 2010 and given a four-and-a-half year prison sentence.
Ian Cruxton of the Serious Organised Crime Agency (SOCA) commented:
“Serious organised criminals are motivated by money which buys them lifestyle and influence. Those who help them through money laundering enable the profits of crime to be invested in further criminal activity and this affects us all.
“SOCA doesn’t stop when it has caught and convicted the criminals. We will go after their wealth and we are determined to make sure they can’t use it or enjoy it.”
This SOCA policy led to the current attempts to recoup some of Frank McGrath’s ill-gotten gains. He was ordered to repay £925,000 and this week failed to do so, resulting in an additional two year prison sentence.
Yet many Prestonians are left wondering whether justice was really done over Operation Angel twenty years ago, when Frank McGrath and others succeeded in escaping jail. His old boss Cllr Harold Parker was never prosecuted, despite extensive investigations into his role as Owen Oyston’s representative during the Docklands development.
Cllr Parker retired from Preston City Council in 2009 due to ill health and died a few months later, after 45 years on the city council and its predecessor, Preston County Borough. He was made an Honorary Alderman, after previously being awarded the Freedom of the City and given the title “Guild Burgess”, which dates back to a 12th century award to Preston by King Henry II. Cllr Parker’s portrait hangs in the Town Hall, a public insult to anyone who cares about honesty in public life.
If Preston council tax payers are to have confidence in their political representatives and their police force, it is time for the criminal career of Frank McGrath and his cronies – whether Labour councillors or Tory businessmen – to be fully investigated by an independent inquiry.