The staff member, who has not been named, is alleged to have falsified the email to prove that the Liberal Democrats had responded to a request for comment from the website OpenDemocracy.
Lawyers for the Liberal Democrats had accused OpenDemocracy of “irresponsible” behaviour that was “intended to be disparaging against our client”, after the website published a piece on the party selling data to the Remain campaign in 2016.
Top commercial law firm Goodman Derrick claimed OpenDemocracy had failed to include comment from the Liberal Democrats and demanded the piece be changed or removed.
In order to prove the party had responded, the lawyers supplied an email from the staff member which the official claimed was the Liberal Democrat response to OpenDemocracy.
The email was dated 12 November.
OpenDemocracy had not asked for comment on the story until 13 November.
The “reply” also had a subject heading that was not about the story in question.
When presented with this information, along with further evidence that OpenDemocracy had not received a comment from the Liberal Democrats, the party initially threatened the website with legal action.
In an email sent at 10.57 on 29 November, seen by Sky News, Goodman Derrick told OpenDemocracy that the Liberal Democrats “may wish to seek an urgent injunction to prevent publication of any false allegations of forgery and fraud”.
Just over three hours later, the party changed its story.
A letter from Goodman Derrick to OpenDemocracy, sent by email at 14.17 on 29 November, admitted that the staff member’s email was “incorrect”.
The letter said that the Liberal Democrats had “suspended the member of staff involved in producing that email and has launched an urgent enquiry into the matter”.
It added: “Neither our client contact [the Liberal Democrats] nor this firm had any reason to believe the email was anything other than genuine.”
Mary Fitzgerald, editor-in-chief of OpenDemocracy, told Sky News this was “shocking behaviour” that she “didn’t expect” from the Lib Dems.
“What does it say about the Lib Dems’ regard for fact-checking, accuracy and press freedom?” Ms Fitzgerald said.
“The party urgently needs to clarify who sanctioned this aggressive and expensive legal pursuit, which repeatedly made false claims and included a poorly-faked document.”
The original OpenDemocracy story, by former Independent political correspondent James Cusick, revealed “new evidence” that the Liberal Democrats sold voter data to the Remain campaign.
The story, which was published on 13 November, says the UK’s data watchdog has documents showing that the party made a £100,000 deal with the Remain campaign to supply it data during the 2016 EU referendum.
A Liberal Democrat spokesperson told Sky News: “The Liberal Democrats refute allegations made in OpenDemocracy’s piece of 13 November.
“However, we have been made aware that the information OpenDemocracy subsequently received from the Liberal Democrats was incorrect.
“We have suspended a member of staff involved and are following due process.”
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