Soames helps SA fraud inquiry

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The Independent Online
NICHOLAS SOAMES, the Minister for Food, was interviewed last week by the South African Office for Serious Economic Affairs - the equivalent of the Serious Fraud Office - as part of its investigation into a company where the minister was a non-executive director until late 1991.

An OSEA team led by Tommy Prins, its assistant director, and including lawyers, accountants and police, flew to London a week ago to pursue inquiries into Tollgate Holdings, the South African transport group with a London share listing that collapsed with debts of more than R300m (pounds 62m) last year. A South African, Mervyn Key, has been charged with fraud over Tollgate and is due to appear in court in September.

Mr Soames said: ETHER write error'The OSEA asked to see me and I did see them for half an hour at the ministry. They were at pains to point out that I had nothing to do with the fraud being investigated.'

The OSEA team has also interviewed three senior executives at SG Warburg, the merchant bank that acted as financial adviser to Tollgate, notably in a deal in September 1990 that brought Julian Askin, the entrepreneur behind the spectacular rise of Vernon's pool group Thomson T-Line in the mid-1980s, into the group.

Warburg acted as broker to the company, recommending the shares in a circular only a few months before the group's collapse. Alexander Wilmot-Sitwell, son of the chairman of Warburg Securities, Peter Wilmot-Sitwell, was a director of the company and Mercury Asset Management, the fund manager in which Warburg has a 75 per cent stake, was a large shareholder.

Another larger shareholder was the Sangster family, which is believed to have lost pounds 10m on Tollgate. Guy Sangster, son of the racehorse owner Robert Sangster, was also a director of the company.

Mr Prins has indicated he was keen to interview Mr Askin. His home in Cape Town was raided by the OSEA in February, but no charges have been brought. Another former director believed to be in the UK whom OSEA wants to interview is Lawrie Mackintosh, who was finance director.

Mr Soames, who says he is a friend of Mr Askin, joined the board of Tollgate when Mr Askin took control in 1990. He stayed on until the end of 1991. He told the Independent on Sunday that in that time he attended only one board meeting and had nothing to do with the alleged fraud.

The fraud investigation is the largest in South African history. It is also the first time the OSEA, set up last year with a structure similar to the SFO's, has sent officers to the UK in pursuit of a inquiry. The UK and South Africa do not have an extradition treaty.

(Photograph omitted)