Former Wickes directors charged with fraud

The Serious Fraud Office yesterday charged four former directors of Wickes, the DIY chain with fraudulent trading and making false statements in connection with the scandal which rocked the firm nearly three years ago.

The four - group finance director Trefor Wilmot Llewellyn, and directors Geoffrey Battersby, Terence Carson and Leslie Rosenthal - were bailed to appear at Bow Street Magistrates Court on 30 July.

Henry Alan Sweetbaum, the chairman and chief executive at the time that the affair blew up has, according to the SFO, " indicated through his solicitors that he is willing to submit himself to these proceedings in the near future". He is expected to be charged with similar offences.

The charges come after more than two years of investigation by the SFO and the Metropolitan Police Fraud Squad into the circumstances leading up the discovery of a pounds 50m black hole in the group's accounts in 1996.

Mr Sweetbaum and three of the four four directors charged yesterday, left the firm after the alleged irregularities came to light. Mr Llewellyn had already left the firm in August 1995 for a job at Caradon, the building materials group. He left Caradon at the end of last year.

After the scandal broke, Wickes commissioned Price Waterhouse, the auditing firm, and Linklaters & Paines, the City law firm, to conduct an internal investigation on its behalf. This established that profits had been overstated in previous years by pounds 51m as a result of a widespread practice within the firm of booking suppliers' rebates against future sales in current year's profits.

As a result of the unexpected losses, Wickes shares were suspended and the group made an emergency rights issue to recapitalise the firm.

In December 1996, the group restated its accounts for the two previous years, declaring a consolidate operating loss of pounds 9.9m in 1995 and a profit of pounds 18.3m in 1994. Profits of pounds 17m and pounds 36m respectively were was originally declared.

Between January 1994 and June 1996, the period covered by the SFO investigation, Mr Battersby was group financial controller, Mr Carson was the finance director of Wickes' main retail operating subsidiary, while Mr Rosenthal was the group trading director responsible for buying.

The SFO said that the present management of Wickes have "cooperated fully with the investigating authorities."