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Liam Fox, Former U.K. Defense Minister, Breached Rules, Report Says

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LONDON DEFENSE MINISTER
Defence Secretary Liam Fox leaves the Ministry of Defence building on October 13, 2011 in London, England. | Getty

LONDON — Britain's departed defense minister Liam Fox breached rules by allowing a personal friend access to meetings and overseas visits – including discussions with a U.S. military commander and senior Israeli officials, a report by the country's top civil servant ruled Tuesday.

Fox stepped down as defense secretary on Friday amid intense scrutiny over the role of Adam Werritty, who had posed as an aide, arranged private meetings and joined at least 18 trips overseas.

The former defense lobbyist, who was best man at Fox's wedding in 2005, had no official government role but appeared frequently at the minister's side across the globe.

In a report on an official inquiry, Cabinet Secretary Gus O'Donnell criticized Fox for allowing Werritty access to talks, failures to disclose links between his friend and political donors, and for sharing sensitive details of his travel schedule with his friend – which had "posed a degree of security risk" to both Fox and ministry officials.

"The evidence in this report supports the conclusion of a clear breach of the ministerial code," O'Donnell wrote. "This was a failure of judgment on his part for which he has taken the ultimate responsibility in resigning office."

O'Donnell said Fox had ignored warnings from senior aides that his contacts with Werritty, who is in his early 30s and at least 15 years Fox's junior, were problematic.

The fact the minister had introduced Werritty to someone who later became a financial backer could also be seen by some as potentially wrong, the report said.

"In this case there was an inappropriate blurring of lines between official and personal relationships," O'Donnell wrote.

Fox, 50, was also criticized for failing to ensure ministry staff were present at a meeting with a potential supplier in Dubai – which had been arranged by Werritty – and at talks with senior Israeli officials. Official aides are required to attend such meetings under government rules.

However, O'Donnell confirmed that Fox did not compromise national security and had made no financial gain during his dealings with Werritty.

"I am pleased that the report makes clear that the two most serious allegations, namely of any financial gain sought, expected or received by myself and any breach of national security, have no basis," Fox said in a statement.

Jim Murphy, the main opposition Labour Party's defense spokesman, said the report had not fully addressed the extent of Werritty's role as a rogue adviser.

"This report only scratches the surface of potential wrongdoing. This is a murky business and it has not yet been resolved," he said.

O'Donnell confirmed that Werritty had previously distributed businesses cards describing himself as an aide to Fox, which he said likely gave the impression he represented Britain's government.

Werritty's "use of business cards portraying himself as an adviser ... risked creating the impression that Mr. Werritty spoke on behalf of the U.K. Government," O'Donnell said.

Opposition lawmakers had raised concerns that Werritty may have used his access to Fox to win influence or gain valuable contracts for his financial backers, though O'Donnell said both Werritty and Fox had insisted that the younger man had never lobbied the minister on behalf of clients.

But the report confirmed Werritty received funding from a not-for-profit organization called Pargav, which he told the inquiry supported work in the Middle East.

Donors to Pargav included a real estate company owned by the head of a lobbying organization which promotes ties between Israel and Britain, Michael Davis – the chief executive of mining giant Xstrata – and a risk management company with ties to Sri Lanka, the report said.

Another donor named in the report, Jon Moulton, provided evidence to the inquiry and said last week he had been approached by Fox to offer funds to Pargav.

Werritty should have not attended a meeting in September 2010 with Britain's incoming ambassador to Israel on "international defense and security matters," the report said.

O'Donnell called for "a more rigorous approach to avoid similar blurring of lines between personal and official business in the future."

Werritty had met with Fox on at least 40 occasions since the lawmaker took his post in May 2010, when Britain's current Conservative-led coalition government was established. He had also held meetings with two junior defense ministers.

In Washington, Pentagon press secretary George Little said Tuesday that Werritty had attended a March 2010 meeting between Fox – then an opposition lawmaker – and then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates. "It was a purely unclassified discussion," Little said in an email.

Werritty also joined in a steakhouse dinner in July 2010 in Tampa, Florida, with Fox and Lt. Gen. John R. Allen – now the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan.

Prime Minister David Cameron's office said the British leader accepted the findings of the report and agreed that Fox had broken the ministerial code.

Cameron appointed Philip Hammond, previously Britain's Transport Secretary, to replace Fox in charge of defense.

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Associated Press Writer Pauline Jelinek in Washington and Cassandra Vinograd in London contributed to this report.

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