Bunhill: Thorn proves no easy rider

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HELL'S ANGELS can hold their heads high again. The allegation in the august pages of the Wall Street Journal last September that they were used as unofficial debt-collectors by Thorn EMI's US subsidiary Rent-A-Center not unnaturally ruffled a few leathers in biker circles.

But now Senator Warren B Rudman, in his long-awaited report into these and other allegations, has cleared the bikers (oh, and Thorn) of any systematic intimidation of RAC customers. True, the members of one former gang seem to have been used on one occasion, but they had actually disbanded six years earlier. The damaging slur that self-respecting Hell's Angels would help out big business - and Limey big business at that - has been laid to rest.

I wish I could say Thorn comes out of the affair smelling as sweet. If it had deliberately set out to make Rudman's 'independent' investigation look like a whitewash, it could hardly have done a better job.

For a start, it was unfortunate that the senator is a partner of Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton and Garrison, a law firm that has acted for Thorn several times in the past.

Unfortunate, too, that Thorn, rather than Rudman, drafted the announcement summarising the conclusions of his report, (though Rudman did approve it).

Unfortunate, too, that Thorn refuses to say how much it paid the senator, even though he tells me he is happy for the figure to be made public. My guess is that Thorn won't be seeing much change out of dollars 500,000 after paying a small army of investigators, consultants, lawyers and economists.

Unfortunate, too, that the senator has allowed Thorn to see his full 305-page report, but that no one else is allowed to see it for another few weeks because of technical reasons.

Rudman, who rose to fame cross-examining Ollie North in the Irangate hearings, is a highly respected figure in Washington. He says key allegations made in the Journal, which listed a catalogue of questionable behaviour by RAC employees, were 'either incorrect or misleading'.

RAC rents out electrical goods and furniture from 950 stores across America to the low-paid and others unable to obtain conventional credit.

Rudman found that where staff had misbehaved, these were 'isolated or sporadic' incidents. But after going through the Journal's many specific points with a Thorn lawyer, I have to say I'm not left with the impression that RAC is squeaky clean.

Moreover, I gather that one of the senator's findings is that 6 per cent of RAC customers - 45,000 people by my calculations - feel they have been pressed into renting products they don't want.

This has not stopped Sir Colin Southgate, Thorn's chairman, opining that RAC has been 'vindicated on every single point'. If he really believes that, then I'm a Harley Davidson.

(Photographs omitted)