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Abbey National shamed by corrupt boss

Building societies were once considered pillars of propriety. The drive to become banks is changing that, writes Chris Blackhurst
Building societies have received a terrible warning of the dangers ahead if they persist with their drive to cease to be mutual organisations working for their members, and become thrusting, profit-driven banks.

Once, the criminal conviction of a senior executive of a major building society for fraud would have been almost unthinkable. Like doctors and lawyers, the local society manager used to be a pillar of propriety, someone to be respected and looked up to, who stood for the age-old concept of mutuality, rather than profit.

Not any more. Now, as bonuses and share options take over, the former building societies are increasingly open to the threat of fraud by their employees. Last week, in the most graphic illustration of the risks they face, a former high-flier at the Abbey National was convicted at the Old Bailey of conspiracy to defraud the building society-turned-bank of pounds 1.2m. An eight-month long trial - one of the longest-ever at the Central Criminal Court - heard how Mike Doyle, the Abbey National's former marketing services director, had taken "kickbacks" from suppliers.

In the dock with Doyle were seven defendants from marketing firms which supplied Abbey National. All eight were found guilty and will be sentenced at the end of this month.

Even by the standards of the financial sector, becoming used to scandal, the downfall of Doyle was dramatic. By the standards of the old building society industry, it was shattering.

Until three years ago, Doyle ran the Abbey National's marketing campaigns. More than that, he was the public face of the bank, often quoted in the press in connection with mortgage-rate changes. Still only 32, he was behind the bank's TV advertisements starring Richard Wilson, who played Victor Meldrew in One Foot in The Grave and was regarded as a rising star in the industry and a future contender for chief executive.

In 1993, his salary was pounds 44,700 with a pounds 5,050 bonus. Then, in the summer of 1994, the Abbey National's sales promotions manager, Gary Brown, complained that he was not being consulted about payments to some of the firms supplying the marketing department. Internal auditors examined the books and discovered invoices for work that either had not been done or made out for high sums. Among them, for instance, was a bill for thousands of promotional gift pens bearing the bank's name - no pens had ever been sent.

Alarmed, the Abbey National called in the police. They found that Doyle, who had a big say in the spending of the bank's pounds 35m advertising and marketing services budget, had been receiving bribes in return for putting through excessive or bogus invoices.

Just as shocking was the apparent alacrity with which the firms involved were prepared to go along with him. Abbey National is not a fly-by-night company and these were not fly-by-night suppliers.

One of them, Business Development Partnership or BDP, was a subsidiary of Princedale, the stock-market quoted media and design consultancy. In its 1993 annual report, Princedale trumpeted BDP's winning of the Abbey National account. BDP fraudulently misrepresented the work it had done. Two former BDP executives, Ian Zack and Tim Spillane, were convicted last week along with Doyle.

Other suppliers in the frame were Fixed Focus, where Stuart Nicholson was convicted of defrauding Abbey National, and NRG Communication, where Robert Taylor and Guy Hewitt were found guilty. Stephen Bracken from AJB Consulting was also found guilty of conspiring with Doyle.

The remaining defendant was Doyle's brother James. He acted as a middleman on his scams, funnelling the bribes into bank accounts controlled by Doyle.

Anthony Glass QC, prosecuting, said it was not possible to put a precise figure on the amount in kickbacks Doyle had received, but that at least pounds 230,577 went into accounts controlled by him or his wife.

In return, the suppliers were awarded pounds 662,910 worth of business by Abbey National in 1993 and pounds 548,964 up to Doyle's suspension in August 1994.

There was no doubting who was the main player. The judge, Peter Beaumont, said he regarded Doyle as "greedy" and the brains behind the fraud.

A spokesman for Abbey National said the bank had been shaken by the fraud and was pursuing in the civil courts the defendants and the firms involved for the pounds 1.2m. Fortunately, he added, only one employee, Doyle, had been implicated and internal auditing procedures had been tightened to prevent any recurrence.