A City solicitor with 25 years' experience told the High Court today that he had been 'utterly stupid' to tell his IT department to 'burn' a messaging app subject to a search order.
Raymond McKeeve, former partner at Jones Day, is accused of contempt by grocery business Ocado in relation to his work for Project Today, a company set up by Ocado co-founder Jonathan Faiman.
McKeeve faced cross-examination today about why he instructed the company’s IT manager to ‘burn it’ or ‘burn all’ - on the same day his client was served with a search and evidence preservation order in July 2019.
The solicitor has said he ‘panicked’ in response to the order and that the instruction to delete the app was a ‘knee jerk reaction’. The court heard that one of the select few people with access to the app had taken on a pseudonym of Belinda de Lucy, the name of McKeeve’s wife, who was then a Brexit Party MEP.
McKeeve told the court: ‘It was utterly stupid. Had I thought about it I would not have deleted it. It achieved nothing apart from getting me in this situation.’
David Cavender QC, for Ocado, suggested the name had been deliberately chosen so no suspicions would be aroused if McKeeve received a call purportedly from his wife. The solicitor replied: ‘I don’t know what I was thinking about.’ He added: ‘I just wanted my wife’s name to be out of harm’s way. My immediate response was ‘someone is handing over a phone with my wife’s name on it’. I didn’t think about it… I feel like a moron for having done it.’
McKeeve told the court he had not been specifically told this was a ‘burner box’ (ie one where the contents could be destroyed at short notice), and said it was ‘complete coincidence’ that he used the word ‘burn’ in his instruction to the IT department. He said he did not know why pseudonyms were used by group members, adding: ‘There was nothing surreptitious. I thought [those taking on other names] had been watching too many Jason Bourne films.’
McKeeve played down the significance of the app, which the court heard was used for 93 calls in three weeks by one of member of the group, who also instructed that they stop using text messaging or Whatsapp.
He denied being aware that Ocado was ‘onto him’ when he gave the instruction to delete the app.
Cavender said: ‘You had in your possession documents which you knew were confidential… [the search order] was not just a sniff around, there were things to see which you must have been worried about.’
McKeeve was asked why he did not flag up his ‘burn’ instruction immediately with Ocado lawyers but he said it ‘didn’t dawn on me’ to tell anybody at that stage.
Cavender suggested McKeeve’s real motivation was to protect his own reputation and to prevent evidence of wrongdoing from being seen by the court and by Ocado.
The barrister added: ‘You did it to cover it up and hope it didn’t come out. That is what’s really going on here. In many ways [hiding it after the event] was the inevitable follow-up to someone who gave a burn instruction which was contrary to a court order with which you had just been made aware.’
McKeeve said he did not seek approval from anyone before the ‘burn’ instruction but denied he knew this wrong at the time, telling Cavender: ‘I am sorry this doesn’t fit your narrative.’
Robert Weeks QC, for McKeeve, said on Tuesday that his client ‘does not suggest it was the correct or appropriate thing to do. It was a serious error. When he realised that what he had done was wrong, he took steps, such as he could, to ameliorate it’.
The hearing continues.