Businessman tells of 'crass attempts' to 'bribe' Branson

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The Independent Online
A British businessman yesterday said he was with Richard Branson when a rival allegedly tried to bribe him to drop his bid to run the National Lottery. Andrew Buncombe reports from the High Court on the latest evidence in the libel trial.

John Jackson said he nearly fell off his chair when Guy Snowden allegedly tried to bribe Mr Branson to drop his plan to run the lottery for no profit. Mr Jackson, chief executive of Sketchley, said that he, like Mr Branson, had been flabbergasted at what he heard.

"I nearly fell off the chair at that stage because it was, in my view, very explicit what was being said. Richard and I looked at each other. I raised my eyebrows." Mr Jackson, in his capacity as Mr Branson's bid co-ordinator, was the only other person present at a lunch in September 1993 at the Virgin boss's London home.

It was at this lunch that Mr Branson says Mr Snowden, chairman of GTech - which was part of the Camelot consortium - tried to bribe him.

Mr Jackson, former managing director of the Body Shop, said he had no doubt what Mr Snowden was offering.

"There definitely seemed to be an intention. He knew what he was going to say and he delivered his words very clearly," he said.

He added: "Throughout the meeting Mr Snowden was quite agitated. He was sweating profusely, he didn't eat very much, he didn't take any wine that was served with the meal but was drinking a lot of water. He was fiddling with his fingers a lot of the time."

He said that Mr Snowden had then turned to Mr Branson and asked if there was something he could do for him personally. He said that when the words were delivered the atmosphere had changed and become very stiff.

Mr Jackson told the court he had been shocked and amazed at Mr Snowden's "crass attempts" to bribe Mr Branson. After the American had left the lunch meeting Mr Branson turned to Mr Jackson and asked whether he had been mistaken at what he heard. "I replied 'That was most definitely a bribe attempt, Richard'," he said.

Mr Jackson added that in his 34 years as a businessman he had been the recipient of several attempted bribes. Mr Branson is suing Mr Snowden, GTech and the company spokesman, Robert Rendine, for libel, after they dismissed his allegation of attempted bribery as false.

Mr Branson, who made the allegation during a BBC Panorama programme broadcast in 1995, is being sued over his original accusation.

Earlier yesterday he concluded 16 hours in the witness- box, 11 of which were under cross-examination, by dismissing a suggestion that he was still bitter about losing the lottery contract. "I fight very hard to achieve what I set out to and if I fail I pick myself up."

He was given permission to leave court to pursue his attempt to circumnavigate the world by balloon, but later said this was unlikely to begin until the weekend.

The hearing continues.