Last updated at 18:16 25 November 2007

The private detectives hunting for Madeleine McCann were once arrested in a phone-tapping scandal linked to leading politicians and businessmen.

Five senior members of the family-run firm Metodo 3 ? including director-general Francisco Marco, who is liaising with Kate and Gerry McCann ? were held amid claims of industrial and political espionage.

Mr Marco’s mother, Maria Fernandez Lado, 57, who founded the agency 23 years ago, was pictured in handcuffs after being arrested as she handed a client a cassette allegedly containing a phone-tapped conversation.

'Murky past':The firm's founder Martina Lado
'Murky past':The firm's founder Martina Lado

In a raid on Metodo 3’s Barcelona offices, police seized handguns, ammunition, listening equipment, cassettes and transcripts of taped phone calls. But the 1995 case was dropped by a judge after defence lawyers levelled accusations of police entrapment.

However, The Mail on Sunday’s findings ? including transcripts of conversations in which Mr Marco’s mother allegedly offers a tapping service ? will bring into question the suitability of the firm in running the McCanns’ investigation.

It is not known if the McCanns are aware of Metodo 3’s past. But a fellow private investigator said last night: ‘They have portrayed themselves as the best investigators in the world. The truth is they are nothing of the sort. Their murky background is riddled with controversy.’

Metodo 3 hit the headlines three weeks ago after lawyer Mr Marco boasted that he would find Madeleine, below, in months.

He said his agency was ‘100 per cent sure’ Madeleine was alive and ‘not maybe…but very close’ to finding the four-year-old’s abductor.

Lawyer Francisco Marco claimed he would find Madeleine

It was reported that the firm has up to 40 detectives on the case. However, company accounts reveal a section of Metodo 3 made a net loss of £61,500 in 2005 and had a full-time staff of just 12. They claim they now have 27.

The McCanns commissioned Metodo 3 on a six-month contract as Portuguese police targeted them over their daughter’s disappearance and appeared to lose interest in finding her alive.

Gerry McCann has privately voiced his trust in Metodo 3, which was hired by the couple’s multi-millionaire-backer, Brian Kennedy, a double glazing tycoon. Yet in a police investigation Mr Marco’s mother, known as Marita, was arrested as she handed over a recording of a tapped phone call.

She was also taped in an undercover sting allegedly claiming: ‘I did tapping… fundamentally for people I had known for a long time.’ Also held were her husband Francisco Marco Poyuelo, 60, Francisco Marco, 35, his brother Francisco Gabriel Fernandez Lado, 36, and employee Oscar Trujillo, 40. The detainees were held in custody for 48 hours but were never charged after an investigating judge threw the case out.

Detectives had persuaded a businessman to meet Marita posing as a client. It was a clear-cut case of police entrapment.

However, a police report and a transcript of a conversation claims Marita allegedly offered to illegally tap phones for £15,000 to £21,000. In the police transcript Marita allegedly told the ‘client’: ‘Phone tapping…It’s very dangerous at the moment. It’s very dangerous, very dangerous. But not dangerous for me!’

Police had launched the operation after Spanish phone giant Telefonica suspected an employee was involved in illegal tapping and industrial espionage.

Officers monitored worker Sergio Sancelestino’s phone calls and discovered he had close links to Metodo 3. A police report stated: ‘It was established that Sergio Sancelestino maintained frequent contact with the management of the Metodo 3 detective agency, and that they could be carrying out illegal phone-tapping, obtaining large financial rewards for those jobs.’

Undercover police claim they watched as Metodo 3 and three Telefonica employees tapped a telephone.

Police swooped as Marita handed over a tape, then raided six other addresses. But four months later the case was ‘archived’ and the judge said there was no evidence Metodo 3 had been involved in phone tapping or profited from it.

Francisco Marco yesterday claimed that the allegations made against his company had been provoked by their own investigation into state corruption. He said: ‘The judge said it was all made up by the police.’ He added his firm was very healthy.

The McCanns’ spokesman, Clarence Mitchell, said the agency retained their confidence and was not acting illegally for them. Meanwhile, it was reported in Portugal that police had looked at whether the McCanns had ‘sold’ Madeleine.

The theory was later dismissed.

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