THE leaking of information to journalists by senior DUP figures at the height of public outcry over the RHI scandal is now the subject of a criminal probe, The Irish News can reveal.
Former Stormont minister Simon Hamilton and his then special adviser John Robinson leaked civil servants’ emails in a bid to deflect media attention away from their party.
In January 2017, with Mr Hamilton’s consent, Mr Robinson sent an envelope containing copies of the emails to journalists and the permanent secretary at his own department, Andrew McCormick.
The alleged data breach is being investigated by the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO), alongside the alleged leaking of a list of RHI claimants to the BBC.
Former DUP spad John Robinson leaked RHI emails. Picture by Mal McCann
The emails that were printed and sent in brown envelopes by Mr Robinson, now the DUP’s head of communications, had been forwarded to Arlene Foster’s former special adviser and ex-Ulster Farmers’ Union (UFU) employee Andrew Crawford days earlier by the farm lobby group’s chief executive Wesley Aston.
The leaking was believed to have been part of an effort to take the heat off Mr Crawford, who over previous weeks had been the focus of intense media attention after The Irish News revealed his relatives’ interest in the poultry industry and subsequent claims that the party’s aides had sought to delay the imposition of RHI cost controls.
Details emerged during the RHI inquiry last November, when former economy minister Mr Hamilton agreed with inquiry chairman Sir Patrick Coghlin that the decision to leak the material was not his “proudest moment”.
Former DUP special adviser Andrew Crawford
The ICO’s investigation follows a complaint from the Renewable Heat Association NI (RHANI). An initial lack of evidence relating to the leaks meant investigators believed a prosecution was unlikely, however, Mr Hamilton’s testimony reignited their interest.
“Based on the original evidence provided, the ICO decided not to proceed to prosecution in this case,” an ICO spokesman told The Irish News.
“The complainant requested a review of that decision, based on additional evidence coming to light in 2018, and an assessment of that additional evidence forms part of that review, which remains ongoing.”
Mr Robinson gave oral evidence to Sir Patrick Coghlin’s inquiry ahead of Mr Hamilton and was not quizzed on the leaks.
In a subsequent written statement, he claimed he “tried to balance” the public interest with that of his party and his colleagues when he anonymously leaked emails.
Mr Robinson says he was “encouraged” to pass the emails to the media by Arlene Foster’s then adviser Richard Bullick and that Mr Crawford also wanted them disclosed.
The ICO has also confirmed that its criminal investigation also covers the leaking of a list of RHI claimants to the BBC, ahead of publication by the Department for the Economy.
A spokesman said: “The ICO is carrying out a criminal investigation into a complaint received from the Renewable Heat Association of Northern Ireland, concerning the unlawful obtaining and disclosure of personal data relating to members of the Renewable Heat Initiative (NI) Scheme. The investigation is ongoing.”
The DUP said it would not be commenting during a live investigation.