Al Fayed Accused: Harrods boss rejects charges of lechery and bugging

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Former staff at Harrods have begun speaking publicly for the first time about what they allege is a terrifying regime of bugging, intimidation and sexual harassment under its owner Mohamed al Fayed. Steve Boggan hears their stories.

"The whole thing was based on fear and intimidation," said Francesca Betterman, Harrods' former company solicitor. "Whenever he came to see me, he would have three of his bodyguards with him - ex-SAS or something - it was very frightening."

When she speaks, Mrs Betterman, 33, sounds exhausted. For months she has been drained of her experiences at Harrods. First, lawyers for Vanity Fair took affidavits from her to defend a libel action brought by Mr Fayed. Then, on Thursday, ITV's The Big Story featured her alleging how the Egyptian bugged her phone, and now everybody else is asking: "What was it like to work for Mohamed Fayed?"

Mrs Betterman was one of a string of former Harrods staff who told The Big Story the answer to the question. Aided by tapes secretly recorded by Harrods' security staff they told how their phones were bugged, how women were routinely sexually harassed by Mr Fayed and how everyone from the shop-floor to the boardroom lived constantly in fear of the sack.

Lawyers for Mr Fayed issued a statement yesterday describing the allegations as "untrue" and claiming they were made by disgruntled and vindictive former employees. Michael Rogers, legal director, said: "Mr Fayed has long been aware that his actions in exposing the corruption and sleaze which existed at the heart of the last Conservative government, and which were instrumental in its demise, would lead to a concerted and vicious attack on him by those most affected. That disgruntled former employees should lend themselves to this saddens him greatly."

However, asked to comment on specific allegations, lawyers for Mr Fayed refused to elaborate yesterday. The allegations against the Harrods boss came in two main tranches; one related to bugging, the other to sexual harassment.

The programme played tapes of telephone conversations recorded - entirely legally - on bugged telephones within the Harrods organisation. Robert Loftus, the former director of security at Harrods, confirmed yesterday that every bug was authorised personally by Mr Fayed, which he denies.

On several occasions, staff would be confronted with transcripts of telephone conversations they had had and asked to account for their comments. Mrs Betterman's husband, Christoph, former deputy chairman of Harrods, resigned after being shown a transcript of a telephone conversation he had had with a head-hunter on a phone in his Harrods-owned Park Lane apartment.

Last week, Mrs Betterman, who now lives in Germany, was presented with a tape that showed she too had been bugged.

The sexual allegations are more serious. "It was awful," Mrs Betterman said yesterday. "His [Mr Fayed's] language was very disgusting and very graphic. It might involve him asking you on Monday morning what you got up to over the weekend - but they were not his words. His would be revolting.

"He would get a bit gropey. There were two occasions when I was very frightened of him. Once was on a business trip to Paris when he came into my bedroom, and another was in London when I was told to go to Park Lane assuming it was business. But it wasn't and I had to talk my way out of his bedroom. He was not violent, but it was terrifying because his apartment was a maze of rooms and I couldn't find my way out."

Other women on The Big Story made similar claims. One, identified as Miss Y, said: "He made me come into his office and he started abusing me and holding me and saying if I had sex with him he would give me anything I wanted. He tried to kiss me on my mouth. I'm scared of him."

Another, Miss X, said: "He would come and grope me and make obscene remarks about my sexual life, my private parts." She alleged that, on another occasion, he tried to pay a bonus by pushing cash into her bra.

Many of the allegations are culled from an article in Vanity Fair, over which Mr Fayed was suing. However, the action was settled shortly after the death of his son, Dodi, and Diana, Princess of Wales. In the statement issued by his lawyers, it was pointed out that Mr Fayed felt he could not respond because other legal actions were pending.

A third set of allegations related to the fear which Mr Fayed engendered among staff. Mrs Betterman and Mr Loftus told The Independent that it was not unusual for people do be dismissed during Mr Fayed's regular strolls through the store.

"His bodyguards would be with him and he would have them write people's names down," said Mrs Betterman. "Later, someone from personnel would tell them they were fired. It was disgusting; he was playing with people's lives. Sometimes it would be for something as simple as him not liking the look of someone."

Few, however, were prepared to answer back. One senior director said that Mr Fayed had a complement of more than 40 bodyguards. They were culled mainly from the ranks of the Royal Military Police close protection service - which defends generals, VIPs and ministers when abroad - with a smattering of SAS, paratroopers and Royal Marines.