U.K.'s 'Cash For Honors' Scandal

generic queen elizabeth medal OBE CBE
Letter from London is Larry Miller's weekly, in-depth look at news from across the pond and how it relates to the United States.
In the movie "The Wizard of Oz," the Tin Man receives a testimonial, the kind given to good deed doers. In Britain, good deed doers get honors bestowed on them by the Queen on the recommendation of the government in power. They go to charity workers, school crossing guards, to philanthropists, captains of industry and top entertainers.

Some get an OBE -- Officer of the Order of the British Empire. Or a CBE -- Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire . Others, an MBE -- Member of the British Empire. And if you are really impressive you might become a Dame or a Knight -- Sir Richard Branson, Sir Paul McCartney, Sir Elton John and Sir Tom Jones, to name a few.

Or you might become a Lord! The Queen's Honours are supposed to be for those who make a difference, a positive difference to British society.
But sometimes it seems it may be an under-the-table payback for favors to the government. Not only is this not cricket, it's not legal, having been outlawed back in 1925.

Scotland Yard is now investigation cash traded for honors. Prime Minister Tony Blair's chief Labor Party fund raiser and favorite tennis partner Lord Levy has already been arrested along with two others, though they have not yet been charged and deny any wrong doing. The allegations are that Labour's coffers were running dry before the last election, and that off-the-books loans solicited from some wealthy people would be rewarded with a knighthood or better -- a Lordship perhaps. Loans of at least $28 million were made that in some cases were allegedly meant to pay for peerages, that's when you get to sit in the unelected House of Lords and vote on national issues.

The loans were reportedly so off-the-books, that when the news first hit, the party treasurer claimed he knew nothing of them. And they were also reportedly concealed from the party's official auditors.

Since the story broke nearly a year ago, Scotland Yard's bloodhounds have already questioned over 90 people including lawmakers from the Labor, Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties. Some have themselves jumped into print, so keen they are to reveal they are not suspects.

A second element to this investigation is whether promises of honors were made to wealthy businessmen in exchange for financing new schools in underprivileged areas.

The top police investigator just revealed in a letter to Parliament that "significant and valuable material" has been uncovered and the enquiry is now picking up speed.

When the Conservatives were last in power some of their MPs were caught up in a so-called "Cash for Questions" scandal. That was when businessmen with vested interests paid lawmakers to pose specific questions on the floor of the Commons. This now seems minor league next to the growing "Cash for Honors" debacle.

Many of Prime Minister Blair's closest aids are under investigation and it seems inevitable that the trail will lead to the Downing Street front door.

One newspaper quotes Scotland Yard sources as saying police are ready to sift through Blair's personal emails before they interview the prime minister.

This is a criminal investigation and anyone convicted will likely go to jail. As the police close in, there are a lot of political people and their alleged financial backers who are looking over their shoulders, including Mr. Blair. But this time, there is no wizard heating up a quick hot air balloon getaway.

  • David Hancock

    David Hancock is a home page editor for CBSNews.com.