LONDON — In a new turn in the scandals swirling around Rupert Murdoch's British newspaper outpost, prosecutors said Tuesday that two former top executives will be charged with paying bribes of up to $160,000 to public officials in addition to several earlier charges against them.
The Crown Prosecution Service identified the onetime aides as Rebekah Brooks, 44, and Andy Coulson, 44, both of whom have had close personal or professional ties to Prime Minister David Cameron. Cameron hired Coulson as his director of communications while in opposition and kept him on after coming to power in the 2010 elections.
On Tuesday, Coulson, a former editor of a Murdoch tabloid, News of the World, denied two charges relating to periods before he joined Cameron's staff in 2007, and said he would fight them in court.
Brooks, who is accused of conspiring with another journalist to pay $160,000 over seven years to a Defense Ministry official, was a neighbor and personal friend of Cameron.
The charge of bribing a Defense Ministry official is potentially the most serious of all those drawn up by prosecutors in the scandal that has enveloped the Murdoch empire in Britain.
Under a new bribery act passed by Parliament in 2010, the maximum penalty for bribing a public official is 10 years imprisonment and an unlimited fine.
The accusations seem certain to precipitate a new debate about the practice known in Britain as "checkbook journalism," common for many years, under which editors, reporters and investigators have paid sources clandestinely for information, or provided them with other benefits.
The Crown Prosecution Service said Tuesday that Coulson and Brooks, the former chief executive of News International, the British newspaper subsidiary of Murdoch's News Corp., were among five people to be charged as part of a police inquiry called Operation Elveden. The investigation ran in parallel with other investigations related to a phone-hacking scandal that led to the closing of News of the World.
A sixth potential suspect, apparently a public official, is still being investigated.
Coulson was deputy editor of News of the World from 2000 to 2003 and editor from 2003 to 2007, when he became Cameron's spokesman. He resigned in 2011 as the hacking scandal intensified. The charges against him relate to two periods between August 2002 and January 2003, and January and June of 2005, before he joined Cameron's office, the prosecutors said.
Brooks, who was editor of the Sun tabloid between 2003 and 2009, is among a group of former Murdoch employees who are to face trial next year.
More than 50 former newspaper executives, lawyers, editors, reporters and investigators have been arrested and questioned in extensive police inquiries.