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Former UK Post Office boss breaks down in inquiry over scandal that saw hundreds wrongly convicted

LONDON (AP) — The former head of Britain's Post Office Paula Vennells broke down in tears on several occasions as she gave evidence Wednesday to an inquiry into one of the country’s biggest miscarriages of justice that saw hundreds of branch managers wrongly convicted of theft or fraud because of a faulty computer system.

Vennells, who earlier this year gave back her Commander of the Order of the British Empire title that she received in 2019, admitted that she had “made mistakes” but denied there was a conspiracy to cover up the scandal.

“I have no sense that there was any conspiracy at all,” she said. “My deep sorrow in this is that I think that individuals, myself included, made mistakes, they didn’t see things and hear things.”

After the Post Office introduced the Horizon information technology system 25 years ago to automate sales accounting, local managers began finding unexplained losses that bosses said they were responsible for covering.

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The Post Office maintained that Horizon, which was made by the Japanese company Fujitsu, was reliable and accused branch managers of dishonesty. Vennells, who was chief executive from 2012 to 2019, a period that included the last few years of the scandal, had for years insisted that the system was “robust” despite the hundreds of workers who said they had done nothing wrong.

Between 2000 and 2014, more than 900 postal employees were wrongly convicted of theft, fraud and false accounting, with some imprisoned and others forced into bankruptcy.

The number of victims is not fully known. The British government has introduced legislation to reverse the convictions, brought by the Post Office itself.

The company, which is state-owned but operates as a private business, has a unique function whereby it can prosecute its own staff without the need to contact police or state prosecutors. However, current executives said they couldn't imagine using it again given what happened.

“I did probe and I did ask questions, and I’m disappointed where information wasn’t shared, and it has been a very important time for me to plug some of those gaps," she said in her first public remarks about her role in the scandal for nearly a decade.

The inquiry's chief counsel, Jason Beer, pondered whether Vennells was perhaps the “unluckiest CEO in the United Kingdom.”

Vennells, who insisted she was unaware of bugs in the Horizon system, is due to testify for three days."

“One of my reflections of all of this – I was too trusting," she said.

When she was grilled about postmaster Martin Griffiths, who deliberately stepped in front of an oncoming bus in September 2013 and died weeks later, after he had been falsely accused of taking thousands of pounds from his branch, she broke down.

She also stopped mid-answer for a tissue when she was asked why she had told lawmakers in Parliament that the Post Office had been successful in every case against branch managers.

Vennells, 65, is also an ordained priest, apologized for her comment that subpostmasters and subpostmistresses had been “tempted to put their hands in the till” and said it was an “assumption” she made.

Questioned on whether she put the needs of the business over the suffering of subpostmasters, Vennells admitted there “will be many examples of where that is clearly the case."

While Vennels was CEO, a group of postal workers took legal action against the Post Office in 2016. Three years later, the High Court in London ruled that Horizon contained a number of “bugs, errors and defects” and that the Post Office “knew there were serious issues about the reliability” of the system, including that employees at Fujitsu could remotely access the ledgers of branch managers.

Vennells opened her testimony with an apology to the victims, many of whom were present.

“I actually felt emotional for her because she is up there and she has got all these eyes there that are just full of hatred towards her and that must be such an overwhelming, horrible, intense feeling,” said former branch manager Janet Skinner, who was sentenced to nine months in prison in 2007 for false accounting.

“Everybody has chucked mud at her, it’s time for her to open up and be quite open and honest about who was at the forefront of it all,” she added.

The moment of reckoning was a long time in the making, but it was turbocharged by a four-part television docudrama that aired earlier this year.

The ITV show, “Mr. Bates vs the Post Office,” told the story of branch manager Alan Bates, played by Toby Jones, who has spent nearly two decades trying to expose the scandal and exonerate his peers. Vennells was portrayed by Lia Williams.

Despite hundreds of news stories over the years about court hearings and the continuing public inquiry, the show seen by millions rapidly galvanized support for victims of the injustice.

Bates said outside the inquiry that he had "no sympathy” for Vennells.

“The whole thing is upsetting for everybody, including for so many of the victims," he said. “I’ve got no sympathy really.”

Asked if he thinks she is genuinely sorry, he added: “I wonder about these apologies, these are just words.”

The inquiry report is expected to be published next year.

Pan Pylas, The Associated Press