SFO raids Hinchliffe mansion home

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The Independent Online
Police raided the Sheffield headquarters of controversial entrepreneur Stephen Hinchliffe yesterday as the Serious Fraud Office announced a criminal investigation into the collapse two months ago of his Facia retail empire.

SFO officers and detectives from South Yorkshire police's commercial branch drove away a vanload of documents from Parkhead Hall, the sumptuous Sheffield mansion from which Mr Hinchliffe ran Facia and his extensive web of private companies that also form a key part of the police inquiry.

Four other addresses were searched, including Mr Hinchliffe's homes in Sheffield and London, and that of Christopher Harrison, Facia's finance director.

Citing "operational reasons", the SFO and police declined to comment on the substance of the allegations.

Sources close to the case, however, said the investigation related to alleged theft of assets of millions of pounds from Facia and other matters linked to the running of the group.

"Search warrants were executed today at five premises connected with Facia Limited in Sheffield and central London," the SFO confirmed. "The Serious Fraud Office together with South Yorkshire police have begun an investigation into Facia and related companies. No arrests have been made."

Mr Hinchliffe could not be contacted yesterday and was said by his office to be on holiday, thought to be in London. The SFO is urgently seeking the co-operation of both into the inquiry.

The day's dramatic events follow 10 weeks of investigation by accountants KPMG into Facia's and Mr Hinchliffe's affairs.

The group, which included Sock Shop and the Salisbury's luggage chain, collapsed into receivership at the beginning of June, owing pounds 30m to banks and suppliers.

The receivers have been investigating up to pounds 10m of loans to Mr Hinchliffe's private companies and other expenses, including holidays and helicopter fees, charged to Facia.

They are also investigating the alleged disappearance of payments made to Facia by sellers of businesses to the group.

These are understood to include compensation for lease obligations - so-called "reverse premiums" - which allegedly never found their way to the group.

KPMG partner Tony Thompson, who is heading the receivership, declined to comment on the SFO move last night, but confirmed the firm had passed documents to the regulators.

"Liaison with the police, SFO and the Department of Trade and Industry has become an increasing part of our job," he said.

Both Mr Hinchliffe and Mr Harrison have yet to provide statements of affairs to KPMG, as required by law within 21 days of the company's collapse.

The DTI is already seeking to disqualify Mr Hinchliffe and Mr Harrison, his long-time associate, as directors over the collapse of tennis court maker En-Tout-Cas in 1993.

Proceedings, which Mr Hinchliffe is defending, started last week and are next due in court in January.

The new inquiry is not Mr Hinchliffe's first brush with the police. In 1991, he was arrested and later released without charge by West Midands police over an allegedly improper property deal.

Mr Hinchliffe built Facia up over two years in a dizzy bout of deal-making. At the time of the collapse, it was Britain's second largest private retailer after Littlewoods, with 850 shops in all.

Most of the businesses have since been sold by the receivers, KPMG, while the Saxone, Freeman Hardy Willis and Curtess shoe chains are still under separate administration by Price Waterhouse.

Mr Hinchliffe, who is well known for his lavish lifestyle, has always denied wrongdoing in the trail of corporate collapses that have dogged his career.