Jail threat over PSNI witness protection breach

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A Co Antrim mother has been warned she faces jail after pleading guilty to accessing information about three people on a PSNI witness protection programme.

Judge Gordon Kerr QC, sitting at Belfast Crown Court, told Charlene Pierce: “I am releasing you on bail to allow you to make arrangements for the care of your children from this Friday on.”

Pierce, 34, of Harmin Park, Newtownabbey, will be sentenced on Friday after admitting to misconduct in a public office between June 25 and June 28, 2014.

At the time of the offences, Pierce was working for the Northern Ireland Housing Executive as a claims builder but had “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 court heard that the three protected people had to be moved to new addresses at a cost of £35,000 to the public purse.

Ciaran Murphy QC, prosecuting, told the court that Pierce was arrested on Monday, July 28, 2014, by detectives from the PSNI’s Organised Crime Branch at her place of work in the Housing Executive’s offices in Belfast’s Great Victoria Street for an “unrelated matter”.

He said she was employed as a claims builder for individuals seeking benefit in the Belfast area and had permission to do research on them, but she did not have permission to carry out research on individuals in the Greater Belfast area.

Judge Kerr was told that detectives found her handbag under her desk and inside was a document containing the “personal details of three individuals’’ who were known to detectives as persons currently on the PSNI witness protection programme.

Mr Murphy QC said that as a result of police finding the document, Pierce was rearrested under the Terrorism Act.

The court was told that she accessed information on the Housing Executive’s 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.

The prosecutor said police accessed her Facebook account which showed she had been in contact with an individual about the three persons on the PSNI witness protection scheme.

Mr Murphy QC said Pierce’s phone was examined and showed a phone number for the individual “she had been in contact with on Facebook”.

Terry McDonald QC, defending, told the court that “it was quite wrong to access this information and it was a forbidden act’’.

He added that Pierce had “effectively made herself unemployable in the public service and there will be no relaxation of that in the long term or in the future, if at all’’.

Mr McDonald said Pierce was a mother of several children but had no partner to help her to look after them and was currently earning a living to support her family at a fast food outlet.

Judge Kerr said he wanted time to consider a number of authorities on similar cases and told Pierce he would sentence her on Friday.