Former British defense secretary cited for 'failure of judgment'

Liam fox
REPORTING FROM LONDON -- Britain’s former defense secretary ignored repeated warnings and violated the government’s rules of conduct by meeting dozens of times over the past year with a close friend who was allowed to sit in on meetings and participate in diplomatic events despite having no official role, a scathing report found Tuesday.

The report said that Liam Fox showed a serious “failure of judgment” in his dealings with Adam Werrity, the best man at Fox’s wedding. Werrity met the former defense secretary 22 times at his office in London and 18 times on overseas trips since Fox took up his Cabinet post in May 2010. During part of that time, Werrity handed out business cards falsely billing himself as an advisor to Fox, who let him attend official briefings and other government events.

Revelations about Werrity's extraordinary access forced Fox to step down last Friday, making him the highest-ranking Cabinet minister to resign from Britain’s ruling coalition. The scandal has been deeply embarrassing for Prime Minister David Cameron, who said Tuesday that he was “sorry to see” Fox go but remained committed to transparency in government.

The 10-page report by Cabinet Secretary Gus O’Donnell, Britain’s highest-ranking civil servant, concluded that some of Fox’s meetings with Werrity were inappropriate because they involved government business, and that they lent the impression of a conflict of interest.

Of special concern was the fact that Werrity headed a company funded by donors to the Conservative Party, some of whom also gave money to Fox when the Conservatives were the opposition party. And because of the “frequency, range and extent” of the meetings between the two men, in such far-off places as Dubai and Sri Lanka, outsiders could easily assume that Werrity was an official who spoke for Fox and the British government, the report said.

But  there was no evidence that Fox benefited financially in any way from his relationship with Werrity or that national security or foreign policy were ever compromised, the report added.

Fox hailed those findings, but acknowledged in a statement “that it was a mistake to allow the distinctions between government and private roles to become blurred, and I must take my share of the responsibility for this.”

The emphatic nature of the report, especially its conclusion that Fox received warnings from civil servants about his meetings with Werrity but chose to ignore them, probably shuts the door on a comeback for him as a minister.

His resignation last week deprived Cameron of a Cabinet secretary from the hard right of the Conservative Party. An ideological heir to former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, Fox advocated a close relationship with the United States and Israel, was skeptical of Britain’s involvement in the European Union and helped defuse criticism of Cameron as soft on defense.

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-- Henry Chu

Photo: Liam Fox addressing the Conservative Party conference earlier this month, days before he was forced to resign as defense secretary because of a conflict-of-interest scandal. Credit: Andrew Yates / AFP / Getty Images

 
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