A £5,000 payment by Virgin Media to cover police overtime costs in a fraud inquiry has sparked criticism over whether such payments unduly influence an investigation.
The cable communications provider secretly paid the Metropolitan Police's overtime bill for an investigation into the manufacture and sale of illegal set-top boxes, according to a report in the Telegraph.
On Monday, Virgin confirmed it had agreed to cover the bill, but said the agreement was openly arranged in court, contrary to that report.
"Following a joint operation between Virgin Media and the Metropolitan Police, three men were successfully prosecuted for a large-scale commercial fraud. The defendants were found guilty of manufacturing, importing and supplying over 400,000 set-top boxes, used to unlawfully access cable TV, to dealers across the UK," a Virgin Media spokeswoman said in a statement.
"In accordance with the Police Act 1996, we supported an additional overtime cost incurred by the Metropolitan Police, something that has been fully disclosed and detailed in court," she added.
Police forces are allowed to take payments from private bodies towards their work. For example, the Dedicated Cheque and Plastic Crime unit — a joint Metropolitan Police Service (MPS) and City of London unit — looks into cheque and credit card fraud but works with, and is funded by, the banking industry.
Forces can also accept payments for providing crowd security at public events. However, critics say it is unusual for a business to contribute to a force where it is actually involved in the case.
In court, the defendants — Munaf Ahmed Zinga and two other men — argued that the payments were secret and arranged before the investigation gathered pace, rendering them illegal. However, Judge Inigo Bing rejected this argument, saying there was no basis for concluding the financial arrangement existed before the police issued warrants for their arrest.
Virgin Media confirmed it had paid £5,060 to the Met. In theory, the Police Act also allows the company to offer the police 25 percent of any compensation it receives from the defendants. However, the spokeswoman said any such payment is "hypothetical" at the moment, as confiscation proceedings are ongoing.
The Metropolitan Police said "it is understood an appeal is being sought and it would be inappropriate to comment at this time," in response to a request for further information.