Northern Ireland

Lord Laird defends dealings with registered sex offender in Florida

The Ulster Unionist peer Lord Laird was a paid advisor to a registered sex offender in Florida and hosted meetings for him at the House of Lords as part of a takeover of the Belfast Giants ice hockey team.

Lord Laird has defended his dealings with Christopher Knight.

He said he first learned about his past about 18 months ago.

When the Belfast Giants and the company that runs the Odyssey Arena found out, they scuppered the deal.

Lord Laird said he cannot understand what the problem is.

American Christopher Knight first met the Belfast Giants in autumn 2012.

Initially, Mr Knight, who has a background in the telecommunications industry, had sought to sponsor the team before then offering to buy owner Jim Gillespie's 90% shareholding.

Within less than four weeks of negotiations, Mr Gillespie had sold.

But some at the Giants were curious about Mr Knight's financial background and that led to the team's general manager, Todd Kelman, making a discovery based on Mr Knight having different dates of birth on company documents.

"He was using the same name with different birth dates," said Mr Kelman.

Aliases

"All I did was google his birth dates. His full name with one birth date and then his full name with another birth date listed and bam - first thing on Google."

It was a link to Mr Knight's listing on Florida State's Sex Offender Register. The register includes a photograph of Mr Knight, along with seven aliases he has used.

The register's "crime description" is of two charges of "lewd/lascivious battery, sex with victim 12-15 years old", dating from 2003.

Mr Knight had pleaded no contest to the charges. Adjudication was withheld and he was given five years' sexual offender probation and was placed on the state's sex offender register.

Mr Kelman resigned in mid-February, followed by the players and coaching staff.

Veteran defenseman Rob Sandrock said there was not much debate about the decision: "Once this came out, for us to take the stance we did was a no-brainer. We all jumped onboard right away.

New contracts

"The management here have done a great job in getting the family atmosphere at the arena. It's not just about the games, it's about the kids, mums and dads, so to have someone like that at the top the organisation, it is not very good for the sport."

At the same time, the Odyssey Trust, which runs the arena, used a clause in its contract which allowed it to terminate the lease by which Mr Knight's team could play at the rink.

It also offered the players new contracts to play under its management.

The Elite Ice Hockey League was satisfied with this arrangement and has allowed the Giants to continue to play out their remaining schedule this season uninterrupted.

Mr Knight's response to subsequent inquiries has been to insist he was put on the list inappropriately.

However, the BBC has spoken to James Weick Jr, the attorney who prosecuted for the State of Florida in the case against Knight and who confirmed no error.

"The only way you are put on the Sex Offender Registry is if you have pleaded to a crime. In Mr Knight's situation, since he received five year's sex offender probation, he is automatically put on the registry, whether he was convicted of the crime by getting an adjudication of guilt or after a withhold of adjudication.

Lord Laird
Lord Laird told the BBC he cannot understand what the problem is

"He is on that sex offender register 'correctly', for want of a better word. There is no mistake about that."

As for getting the entry removed from the register, as Mr Knight had claimed he was doing, Mr Weick stated the procedure is clear: "In Florida, the only way you get back off that list is to complete 20 years from the time of the conviction or you have to go back to the Court of Appeals, get the plea vacated and start the process again."

Affidavits

Mr Knight has also claimed that he had made no secret of the entry on the register when he entered negotiations to buy the team.

The BBC has been given sworn affidavits from both Jim Gillespie and Todd Kelman, as well as the chief executive of the Odyssey, all affirming that none of them was aware of the register entry until January.

One person who knew from the outset of sale negotiations was Lord Laird.

The Ulster Unionist peer had been present with Mr Knight when he was first introduced to the Giants last autumn and afterwards hosted two meetings at the House of Lords that progressed the American's purchase.

Lord Laird and Mr Knight had a business relationship dating back almost two years.

In May 2011, the peer made a declaration on the House of Lords register of interests. This was as a paid advisor to Knight Communications, a company co-founded by Mr Knight.

It was an association which was to last right up until the Belfast Giants deal was killed and Mr Knight's background was about to become public.

Lord Laird told us: "A way back at the very start, well, not the very start but near the start, I gave advice to him and for that he gave me a small monetary reward."

For four months, Lord Laird was also a director of another company with which Mr Knight had links called Time is On Your Side Limited.

But he resigned that position just a matter of days after the Odyssey told him it could not be associated with Mr Knight.

At the same time, he removed his advisory role with Knight Communications from the Lords register.

When Todd Kelman discovered the Florida link, he said he challenged Lord Laird who admitted to him he had known for some time.

Lord Laird told the BBC he cannot see what the controversy is about: "It's not for me to do due diligence into someone with a lot of money or claiming to have a lot of money.

'Minor misdemeanour'

"That's not my issue - ok? He is very upfront into what happened to him in Florida and that seemed perfectly reasonable to me that he should go around telling people about it.

"In Northern Ireland, society requires me to work with people who have terrorist convictions and who are now in government. So we're worried about some minor misdemeanour in Florida? I just can't get around in my mind what the problem is."

Lord Laird also believed his association with Mr Knight could have benefited Northern Ireland because Mr Knight had talked of creating a telecommunications business employing 1,500 people.

The peer also told the BBC he had seen a letter from the Metropolitan Police stating Mr Knight was of no interest to them and did not have to be placed on the UK sex register because his five year probation period ended in 2008.

Mr Knight has claimed the register was not the real reason he lost control of the Belfast Giants and has threatened to pursue the matter in the courts.

While he said he was willing to be interviewed by the BBC, he pulled out on two occasions after reporting to the police two alleged incidents at his London home.

On a third occasion he attempted to impose conditions upon our reporting.

You can hear more on this story on BBC Newsline on BBC One at 18:30 GMT on Thursday

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