Formula One obsession led to pounds 50m Landhurst fraud

Ted Ball and David Ashworth, the two directors of Landhurst Leasing who pleaded guilty to corruption charges last Month, appeared at the Old Bailey yesterday to enter their pleas of mitigation. John Willcock looks at how their lucrative luxury car leasing business became deeply corrupt when they expanded into motor racing.

John Snow, the England test cricket legend, gave evidence yesterday on behalf of one the two men, whose "obsession" with Formula One racing drove them to commit a pounds 50m fraud.

Ball, founder of Landhurst Leasing, saw his dream of being a Grand Prix major player shattered in 1992 when his company collapsed following an investigation by accountants Arthur Andersen.

The accountants unearthed a web of corrupt cash payments by a corporate client, Middlebridge Group Ltd (MGL), to Ball and Ashworth, Landhurst's finance director. Both pleaded guilty to corruption charges last month. Mr Justice Pownall heard their counsels' pleas in mitigation yesterday. They are due to be sentenced on Monday.

The Old Bailey heard how Ball's company provided pounds 1m to MGL to buy the historic Brabham Racing Team in 1990. This was in itself a breach of Landhurst's covenants with its banks.

Ron Thwaites QC, representing Ball, claimed his client's passion for racing "blinded" him to his business commitments and he and Ashworth "cooked the books" to hide from the Guinness Mahon merchant banking adviser the support they were giving to Middlebridge. In return Ball and Ashworth demanded pounds 420,000 in backhanders.

The court heard that when Ashworth was first offered a cheque by Middlebridge, he said: "Don't be silly, I want cash."

At another time Ashworth arrived at a motorway service station on the M1 by taxi and was given a briefcase containing pounds 60,000 in banknotes by a Middlebridge contact. In total, pounds 8.5m was advanced to Middlebridge.

Landhurst's banks were led by Guinness Mahon, and included the Prudential, and several Swiss and Canadian banks. The court heard how, when Andersens were called in, only pounds 70m of pounds 121m lent by the banks to Landhurst was recoverable. Of the pounds 7.2m which MGL owed to Landhurst under various leases, only pounds 1m was recoverable.

Fast bowler Mr Snow, who played for Sussex and England, was called as a character witness to explain Ball's other "obsession" - supporting charity. The cricketer said he had known Ball for nearly 20 years, first through business and then through the charity the Lords Taverners, which raises cash through cricket matches.

Mr Snow said he believed Ball to be straightforward and honest. "He is also very generous through his charity work. "He participates in that without any calling for publicity."

Ball, of Hartfield, East Sussex, has admitted eight charges of corruption. Ashworth, 45, of South Ascot, Berkshire, has admitted two charges.