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New charges in British newspaper scandal

Pair accused of bribing defense ministry official

Rebekah Brooks had testified in May that she kept in touch with Prime Minister David Cameron.

AP/File

Rebekah Brooks had testified in May that she kept in touch with Prime Minister David Cameron.

LONDON — In a dramatic new turn in the scandals swirling around Rupert Murdoch’s British newspaper outpost, prosecutors said on Tuesday that two former top executives will be charged with paying bribes of up to $160,000 to public officials in addition to several earlier charges against them.

The Crown Prosecution Service identified the onetime aides as Rebekah Brooks, 44, and Andy Coulson, 44, both of whom have had close personal or professional ties to Prime Minister David Cameron. The British leader hired Coulson as his director of communications while in opposition and kept him on after coming to power in the 2010 elections.

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On Tuesday, Coulson, a former editor of the News of the World tabloid, denied two counts relating to periods before he joined Cameron’s staff in 2007, and said he would fight them in court.

Brooks, who faced a single charge of conspiring with another journalist to pay $160,000 over seven years to a defense ministry official, was a neighbor and personal friend of Cameron.

In one of several inquiries into the hacking scandal, she testified in May that they kept in touch by telephone, text message, and e-mail, meeting at lunches and dinners and socializing at parties, and summer outings.

The charge of bribing a defense ministry official is potentially the most serious of all those drawn up by prosecutors in the scandal that has enveloped the Murdoch empire in Britain.

Under a new bribery act passed by Parliament in 2010, described by British legal specialists as one of the toughest statutes of its kind anywhere, the maximum penalty for bribing a public official is 10 years imprisonment and an unlimited fine, but the statute also provides for much lesser penalties.

The accusations seem certain to precipitate a new debate about the practice known in Britain as ‘‘checkbook journalism,’’ common for many years, under which editors, reporters, and investigators have paid sources clandestinely for information, or provided them with other benefits.

The Crown Prosecution Service said Tuesday that Coulson and Brooks, the former chief executive of News International, the British newspaper subsidiary of Murdoch’s News Corp., were among five people to be charged as part of a police inquiry called Operation Elveden. The investigation ran in parallel with other investigations related to a phone hacking scandal that led to the closing of News of the World.

Among the five were Clive Goodman, a former royal correspondent at News of the World, who served a brief jail term in 2007 for hacking into voice mail accounts in the royal household. A sixth potential suspect, apparently a public official, is still being investigated.

The accusation did not mention any amounts of money.

Brooks, who was editor of The Sun tabloid between 2003 and 2009, will face charges along with John Kay, the newspaper’s former chief reporter between 1990 and 2011, and an employee of the Defense Ministry, Bettina Jordan-Barber.

“We have concluded, following a careful review of the evidence, that Bettina Jordan-Barber, John Kay, and Rebekah Brooks should be charged with a conspiracy to commit misconduct in public office between 1 January 2004 and 31 January 2012,’’ Levitt said.

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