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UK jury convicts tabloid 'Fake Sheikh' of evidence-tampering

Associated Press Associated Press 5/10/2016 By GREGORY KATZ, Associated Press

LONDON — Britain's notorious "Fake Sheikh" was convicted Wednesday of trying to pervert the course of justice in a verdict that may halt a heat-seeking journalistic career.

Tabloid reporter Mazher Mahmood, a master of journalistic "sting" operations who often posed as a Middle Eastern tycoon to get scoops, was convicted at the Old Bailey courthouse along with his driver Alan Smith.

The prominent 53-year-old reporter was found guilty of tampering with evidence in the collapsed drug trial of pop star and former "X Factor" judge Tulisa Contostavlos. He faces possible jail time.

The case against Contostavlos was dismissed in 2014. It had been based on an elaborate sting operation Mahmood conducted for the Sun newspaper owned by media mogul Rupert Murdoch.

In the sting, Mahmood posed as a successful film producer and discussed a movie role for the singer in which she would share screen time with actor Leonardo DiCaprio.

Prosecutors said Mahmood and Smith, 67, gave evidence to police that led to Contostavlos being arrested and charged with supplying illicit drugs.

They said the two men then conspired to alter a written statement Smith gave to police to remove material that would have helped Contostavlos' defense.

"Mr. Mahmood portrayed himself as the master of subterfuge and as the 'King of the Sting,' but on this occasion it is he and Mr. Smith who have been exposed," prosecutor Simon Ringrose said. "Mahmood and Smith tampered with a statement and then attempted to cover their tracks through lies and the destruction of evidence."

Contostavlos said after the drug charges were dismissed that she had been the victim of "a horrific and disgusting entrapment" when she thought she was trying out for an important movie role.

"Mahmood got me and my team completely intoxicated and persuaded me to act the part of a bad, rough, ghetto girl," she said. "They recorded this and produced this as evidence when I thought it was an audition."

The Sun suspended the "Fake Sheikh" after the case against Contostavlos fell apart.

Newspaper stings involving reporters concealing their identities are common in England. A newspaper sting operation that did not involve Mahmood last week brought down English football coach Sam Allardyce. He was forced to resign after The Telegraph newspaper filmed him discussing how to sidestep regulations on player transfers.

Mahmood has figured in the prosecutions of pedophiles and arms dealers and in the embarrassment of public figures, including Sophie, the Countess of Wessex, who is married to Prince Edward, youngest son of Queen Elizabeth II, and ex-England football coach Sven Goran Eriksson.

The Crown Prosecution Service is reviewing 25 past convictions linked to Mahmood and has dropped active criminal cases in which Mahmood was to be a witness.

He also faces a number of civil cases that have been filed against him.

Mahmood and Smith are set to be sentenced on Oct. 21.

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