MGN investigates actions of two senior executives

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MIRROR Group Newspapers has launched an internal inquiry into alleged irregularities involving two of its most senior executives, Alan Stephens, the company secretary, and Robert Gregory, the director of human resources.

The inquries were revealed at yesterday's annual shareholders' meeting, when the question of how the two were able to move their own pension plans from one scheme to another after Maxwell's death were raised by Harry Conroy, former general secretary of the National Union of Journalists.

Mr Stephens has been suspended from his post while the investigation proceeds, though he is still being paid by MGN and turns up for work. Mr Gregory is still in his position and MGN was at pains to stress that his alleged breaches of internal procedures were considered minor.

Journalists at MGN have discovered that Mr Stephens, who was either company secretary or a director of hundreds of Maxwell private companies, transferred his pension from the Maxwell Communication Corporation scheme to the MGN scheme on 5 November, the day Maxwell died.

Mr Gregory made a similar transfer on 30 November, a Saturday and the day before the board meeting at which it was revealed that more than pounds 400m had been taken from the pension funds.

In addition MGN is looking at the role of Mr Stephens in the failure of minutes of some meetings to be distributed to all members of the board.

Sir Robert Clark, chairman of MGN, said yesterday that a 'board meeting' occurred in May last year that just two directors attended, Robert Maxwell and Michael Stoney, the managing director (finance) who resigned in December.

At that meeting it was decided that Maxwell would be granted the power to commit the companies' funds to deals on his sole signature, as he was at MCC. The minutes of the meeting were never communicated to directors.

Sir Robert said MGN was attempting to determine whether Mr Stephens had attended that meeting, whether he had taken minutes and, if so, why they were not passed to the directors.

The revelation was one of the few new facts to emerged at yesterday's meeting, described by one of MGN's executive directors as a 'tea party' and by Sir Robert as being 'like a chapel (journalists' union branch) meeting'.

A number of speakers urged the board to resign and one shareholder, Jane Lewis, proposed a vote of no confidence in the chairman and three directors - Vic Horwood, the chief executive, Ernest Burrington, the former chairman, and Joe Haines, a non-executive director and columnist of the Daily Mirror.

Sir Robert ruled this motion out of order. He also ruled out of order questions by another shareholder, Mr Postings, pressing Mr Haines on why he could become a non-executive director of MGN when he had previously described Maxwell as a crook.

A long stream of shareholders stood up to question the board on their knowledge of transactions by Maxwell prior to his death.

Rupert Allason, the Conservative MP, said that as a matter of honour the directors should resign immediately. After having a number of quesions about legal issues ruled out of order, he turned and shouted: 'Nothing has changed in Mirror Group Newspapers. Nothing has changed.'

City figures attending the meeting were critical of the performance of Sir Robert. 'It was shocking,' said one merchant banker attending in a private capacity. 'The shareholders did not get fair representation,' said a publishing analyst.

However, all motions presented to shareholders, including those re-electing two directors, Bernard Tominey and Roger Eastoe, were passed with large majorities.

MGN shares will be relisted on the Stock Exchange this morning and are expected to open around 50p compared with a suspension price of 125p in December.

(Photograph omitted)