Npower, the energy supplier, "ruined" the life of a sales director to justify a "ludicrous" decision to end its contract with a door-to-door sales agency over bribery allegations, a court heard yesterday.
The electricity and gas group, owned by Germany's RWE, has accused a sales agent, First Contact, of paying a £12,000 bribe in the form of a deposit on a car to David Black, npower's former sales director for the domestic market.
First Contact is counter-suing, arguing the £12,000 was a short-term loan "which npower had deliberately mischaracterised as a bribe as a pretext for terminating" the contracts it held to sign up domestic and small business customers for npower in late 2003. First Contact is demanding £4m compensation.
On the first day of the High Court hearing yesterday, Mr Black gave evidence via a video link from Dubai, where he lives and works. Mr Black, who was suspended from his job in November 2003 after reporting the £12,000 payment to his superiors, left npower in May last year "by consent".
Mr Black said he had been used as a "scapegoat" by npower after it decided to end dealings with First Contact. Npower maintains that the payment, towards the purchase of a £42,000 BMW 7 series, was an attempt by First Contact to influence the outcome of negotiations with npower about signing a new contract and a new code of practice.
Zulfiqur Khan, a director at First Contact, paid £12,000 to a BMW dealership in Solihull in October 2003. He maintains it was a temporary arrangement, to secure the car, which Mr Khan, a motor enthusiast, had sought for Mr Black. Mr Khan alerted Mr Black - who was on business in Amsterdam - to the car he had found, via text message. Mr Black said he was later "concerned and dismayed" that Mr Khan had gone ahead with the purchase.
Mr Black never took possession of the car and the money was repaid by the dealership.
The former npower sales director said it was "all perfectly innocent on my part", suggesting that Mr Khan had become carried away after the pair discussed the possibility of buying a new car for Mr Black. Mr Black said the subsequent dispute had led to him suffering depression and panic attacks.
He said: "Npower treated me very, very badly after six years of great service ... I don't care who wins this case ... [when I think of] the lives they've ruined, knocked the stuffing out of."
Mr Black said he had no need to borrow £12,000, as he had more than £100,000 in his savings accounts and could have transferred the money electronically to the BMW dealership himself, within minutes, if he had wanted to buy the car.
He added he was not in a position to influence the decision over First Contact's contract. He said he had reported the £12,000 payment "in quite a joking fashion" to his line manager.
"I thought we'd get a slap on the hand. I didn't think they [npower] would take the ludicrous decision to terminate Mr Khan's contract," Mr Black told the court.
According to Mr Black, npower tried to "coerce" him into making statements against Mr Khan "that were not true", to support their case against First Contact. Npower claims that Mr Khan had made a "corrupt proposal" to which Mr Black had, "at least initially", been attracted, "before later changing his mind".
The hearing continues.
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