Israelis try to unpick Facia cash secrets

Mystery of payments to web of small firms linked to bank's former staff
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The Independent Online
Tel Aviv-based United Mizrahi is Israel's fourth largest bank, and so hardly a minnow, yet it is hardly a household name in the UK. Why it should have emerged as the biggest lender to Stephen Hinchliffe was curious, to say the least.

A mystery, too, is how the brash Sheffield businessman, who had left a trail of collapses before, gained the cash for his Facia spending spree. In just 18 months, the group had become Britain's second biggest private retailer after Littlewoods, with nearly 1,000 shops.

True, many of the owners of loss-makers such as the Sears shoe chains effectively paid him to remove their headaches. The whereabouts of some of those payments are being investigated by the receivers and the Serious Fraud Office right now.

But "The Hinch" needed more to support his loss-making empire. The Israelis' legal blitz looks like filling in a key piece of the jigsaw.

UMB backed Facia from the outset, lending pounds 2.75m in August 1994 to help buy Salisbury's, the luggage chain which started the spree. After renegotiating its loans and security at the end of last year, it was owed pounds 7.7m at the collapse.

A pivotal role, it is alleged, in introducing the bank was played by Robert Leckie, a 44-year-old property trader based in Colliers Wood, South London.

Mr Leckie and Mr Hinchliffe had mutual acquaintances at Waterglade, a quoted property firm that collapsed with pounds 29m of debts in late1994.

One of Waterglade's former directors, Tom Megas, is a director of property firm Jetlord with Mr Leckie's elder brother Ian, who in turn also sits on the board of two of Mr Leckie's firms, Marvic Investments and Lion Properties.

Facia's receivers have established that Marvic invoiced Facia for at least pounds 822,500 from March to July last year and Lion sent bills for at least pounds 235,000 from June to the year's end.

This weekend, Mr Leckie's solicitors Keppe Shaw admitted handling payments from Facia through its client account. It denied, however, any impropriety on its part in transfers to his companies and offshore.

"I was instructed to make certain telegraphic transfers and those transfers were made," partner George Keppe said from his Elizabethan manor house in Wales.

"Mr Hinchliffe needed finance. They were commissions on the introduction of Hinchliffe to UMB. It is normal City practice."

He also denied that Mr Megas - another client - benefitted.

Those loans helped finance two other Facia buys: the Red or Dead fashion chain and Contessa, the lingerie specialists.

Another Leckie firm, Jersey-based Boroko Investments, also invoiced Facia for at least pounds 200,000 from August 1994, the time of the Salisbury's deal.

A further firm, Oriri Investments, received at least pounds 58,750 direct from Contessa in August last year.

Oriri's true ownership has been in some doubt. Both Mr Doherty, UMB's former credit chief, and his wife are directors, yet have denied any beneficial interest.

Until last week, the firm's shares were held in trust by two solicitors, Michael Talbot and Richard Downing, of Bishops Stortford law firm Nockolds. Mr Doherty lives in the Hertfordshire town.

This weekend, however, Mr Talbot said the firm had resigned its role following "adverse publicity" in a BBC Money Programme a month ago. He declined to confirm or deny whether the Dohertys were the true owners. He said he had never dealt with Mr Leckie.

Asked whether Mr Leckie was involved with Oriri, Mr Keppe replied: "Ultimately, yes."

He could not explain why Mr Leckie should be linked to a firm with a UMB employee, which was paid directly by one of Mr Hinchliffe's companies.

Mr Doherty is also a director - with Anthony Osgood, another ex-UMB employee - of another Bishops Stortford-based firm, The Jarod Partnership, which received a further payment of pounds 12,337 direct from Facia last year.

The writs, served last Monday by UMB's lawyers Nabarro Nathanson, exclude Jarod but seek to recover the alleged Oriri payments. Far greater sums, the bank alleges, were paid to former staff from the account of British Virgin Islands-based Malibu at the Bulach branch of Credit Suisse in Switzerland.

UMB is seeking to recover amounts paid to Malibu between April and October last year, allegedly from the Facia commissions paid to Mr Leckie.

Mr Doherty, London branch chief Rafael Kellner and the wife of Paul Brady, another Facia account executive, benefitted from payments from the Swiss account from October to January this year, the bank alleges.

Mr Leckie's solicitor denied that the alleged payments via Malibu were kickbacks for loans, but admitted Mr Leckie had financial dealings with UMB staff because of domestic difficulties.

"Bob Leckie was going through a terrible divorce, therefore there was a circuitous route for the money. The branch employees were used as a conduit for some of the money," he said.

Mr Hinchliffe declined, via his solicitors Peters & Peters, to return calls to discuss his relationship with Mr Leckie and UMB's former staff.

The bank has recovered all its loans to Facia after sending in the receivers in June. Mr Hinchliffe's unsecured creditors, however, are bracing themselves for a payout of as little as 10p in the pound.