Branson: Sue me over bribes claim

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CHRIS BLACKHURST Westminster Correspondent

Peter Davis, the Oflot regulator, came under strong political pressure last night over his alleged failure to act over Richard Branson's bribery allegations and his acceptance of free flights from a partner in the Camelot consortium.

Mr Branson, head of the Virgin group, yesterday repeated claims that Guy Snowden, the head of GTECH, which has a 22 per cent stake in Camelot, had tried to bribe him at his home in September 1993. He claimed Mr Davis had been told of the approach but had chosen to ignore it.

In the face of denials by Mr Davis and Mr Snowden, Mr Branson, currently in Japan, challenged them to sue him. He said he would be writing to Mr Davis with accounts of their meeting at the offices of Oflot in May 1994, from himself and two colleagues, John Jackson and Gerard Tyrrell.

Meanwhile, Labour joined the fray, when Jack Cunningham, the party's national heritage spokesman, said Mr Davis had put his position "in question" by accepting the free flights. Dr Cunningham called for a Government statement on the controversy from Virginia Bottomley, the Secretary of State for National Heritage.

Both Mr Jackson and Mr Tyrrell said yesterday their memory of the meeting tallied with Mr Branson's. Mr Tyrrell is understood to have taken a note of the conversation which took place before a formal discussion about the award of the National Lottery to Camelot in preference to Virgin.

However, their account was strongly denied by Mr Davis. The Oflot head was consulting Government solicitors about suing Mr Branson. "Any suggestion Richard Branson mentioned any allegations of impropriety concerning Guy Snowden to Peter Davis is absolutely untrue," said an Oflot spokeswoman.

She said that no formal complaint of impropriety had been made and if it was, it would be investigated.

Mr Branson was at pains to explain why he did not raise the allegations earlier, in between apparently telling Mr Davis and informing a team from BBC's Panorama, which broadcast them on Monday. He claimed it was because nobody had raised GTECH or Mr Snowden with him before and when Panorama did he reached for the notes of his meeting in September 1993.

In fact, he did raise them, with another journalist, a short time after the Branson-Snowden meeting. Tim Jackson, who wrote an unauthorised biography of Mr Branson, is understood to have received a detailed account of the meeting but was unable to confirm it.

Meanwhile, attention focused on a telephone call to Mr Branson from Sir Tim Bell, GTECH's public relations adviser, shortly after Mr Snowden is said to have made his offer. According to Mr Branson and Will Whitehorn, his own PR adviser, who heard the call on a speaker phone, Sir Tim said he understood Mr Snowden had said things he might regret. They say Sir Tim asked if Mr Branson planned to relay Mr Snowden's offer to the press. That account was hotly disputed by Sir Tim.

Bribes row, page 2

Leading article, page 16