A former Housing Executive employee who researched the details of three people living on a PSNI witness protection programme has been sent to jail.
Handing Charlene Pierce a 12-month sentence, Judge Gordon Kerr QC told her that her actions not only had the potential to affect the public’s confidence in the scheme, they also put the three people in question in fear.
The 34-year-old mother of two, from Harmin Park in Newtownabbey, will spend six months in prison, with the remaining six months of her sentence on licence upon her release, after she admitted a charge of misconduct in a public office.
Passing sentence at Belfast Crown Court, Judge Kerr said that while he accepted Pierce’s offending occurred over a short period – from June 25 to 28, 2014 – and there was “no evidence” the information was passed on, he nonetheless said what she did was serious.
At that time, Pierce was working for the Northern Ireland Housing Executive as a claims builder but ‘wilfully misconducted herself’ by unlawfully obtaining information about the identities and addresses of three people on the PSNI Witness Protection Scheme.
As a result of her actions, the three protected people had to be moved to new addresses at a cost of £35,000 to the public purse.
Pierce was arrested on Monday, July 28, 2014, by detectives from the PSNI’s Organised Crime Branch at the Housing Executive’s offices in Belfast’s Great Victoria Street for an “unrelated matter’’.
She had permission to do research on people claiming benefits in the Belfast area – but not on the three people whose details she was found to be in possession of.
Pierce was rearrested under the Terrorism Act after detectives found a document in her handbag containing the personal details of the three people on the witness protection scheme.
Judge Kerr said the research she conducted was “deliberate, targeted and unrelated to her work”.
The court heard Pierce accessed information on the Housing Executive’s internal computer system on June 25 and June 26, 2014, relating to the names and addresses of three people who cannot be named by a court order to protect their identities.
A further examination showed traces of researching having been carried out on the computer on June 27, 2014.
Police accessed her Facebook account which showed she had been in contact with an individual about the three people on the PSNI witness protection scheme. When her phone was examined, it also showed a phone number for the same person.
Her barrister accepted that it was “quite wrong” for Pierce to access the information, branding it a “forbidden act”.