SFO raids Hinchliffe banker

The Serious Fraud Office has raided the premises of bankers and associates of controversial Sheffield businessman Stephen Hinchliffe as part of a new investigation arising out of the collapse of his Facia retail empire last year.

The latest inquiry is into alleged widespread corruption involving former staff at United Mizrahi Bank, Israel's fourth largest and Facia's main backer.

Last November, as revealed in the Independent on Sunday, UMB started legal action against former executives over alleged backhanders received for making loans of over pounds 10m to Facia.

Last Wednesday, 22 police officers raided homes and offices of John Doherty, UMB's former head of lending, and Robert Leckie, a south London property trader linked with Mr Hinchliffe.

No arrests have so far been made.

Mr Leckie allegedly received at least pounds 1.3m in commissions from the Sheffield businessman for introducing loans from UMB. Much of that, it is further alleged, ended up in the pockets of bank staff via a network of offshore accounts.

Mr Hinchliffe is already being investigated by the SFO over the collapse of the Sock Shop-to-Saxone shoes group with debts of pounds 70m. The new inquiry goes far wider, however, and is looking into loans to other UMB clients in the UK and overseas.

"Officers of the SFO and South Yorkshire police executed search warrants at four premises connected with former officers of UMB in Bishops Stortford and Colliers Wood in London," an SFO spokesman confirmed this weekend.

"The investigation is expected to focus mainly on the UK but inquiries will also extend to Switzerland and Israel," he said.

South Yorkshire police's commercial branch, headed by Detective Chief Inspector Alan Timms, has led both inquiries. The SFO's team is fronted by Senior Assistant Director Gordon Dickinson.

Neither Mr Doherty nor Mr Leckie were available for comment this weekend, but last November both denied any wrongdoing. Mr Hinchliffe's solicitors, City law firm Peters & Peters, did not return calls.

Separately, City merchant bank Close Brothers has clipped the Sheffield entrepreneur's wings by repossessing his Hawker Siddeley jet in the first known action against his private master company, Chase Montagu.

Lavish expenses for use of the jet are among up to pounds 20m of allegedly irregular payments and loans made to his web of private companies, which contributed to Facia's collapse.

These are now being investigated by Facia's liquidators, accountancy firm BDO Stoy Hay- ward, which is expected to launch further action against Mr Hinchliffe.

Stoy Hayward took over from receivers KPMG last December as the next step in winding up Facia's affairs. This weekend KPMG partner Tony Thompson put fees for the receivership at pounds 2m, against pounds 20m of recoveries through sales of Facia's shops.

"It's not an expensive fee. There has been an enormous amount of investigation work and a lot to do in actually running the business, which traded profitably for the first time in receivership," he said. But ordinary creditors may have to wait two years for a payout, which is likely to total just pounds 3m - less than 5p in the pound.

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