Cleared Walker launches bitter attack on SFO

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George Walker, the former boxer and property tycoon, yesterday launched a bitter attack on the Serious Fraud Office after being cleared of theft and conspiracy charges involving pounds 17m. He also attacked Judge Geoffrey Rivlin for what he claimed was an unfair summing-up of his case.

Looking pale and tired, the ex-chairman and chief executive of Brent Walker spoke of the intolerable strain of a four- and-a-half-month trial, where moments of high drama were matched by extreme farce.

Mr Walker, 65, said the SFO's three-year investigation and the trial, estimated to have cost pounds 2m, had been a complete waste of public time and money. 'This is a case that should never have been brought,' he said.

Mr Walker and his co-defendant Wilfred Aquilina, 43, Brent Walker's former finance director, faced charges of theft, conspiracy to falsify accounts, and false accounting. Mr Walker, who during cross- examination ran from court in tears, remained impassive as the jury foreman replied 'not guilty' on all counts.

However, the jury of nine men and two women - a 12th member was taken ill - convicted Aquilina of one charge of false accounting involving pounds 4.5m.

Aquilina, who was cleared of a charge of conspiracy to falsify accounts, two of theft, and one of false accounting, broke down in tears after the verdict and was comforted by his wife and cousin. He will be sentenced on 10 November following the preparation of reports on his health and financial status.

The jury took seven days to reach its verdicts - one of the longest deliberations in UK legal history. The verdicts were reached after the judge said he would accept majority decisions if at least 10 of them were agreed.

The acquittal of Mr Walker marks another embarrassing defeat for the SFO, which mounted an earlier investigation into him in the 1980s, prompted by articles in the Independent. This was abandoned in 1989, but when Mr Walker was ousted from Brent Walker in 1991, the new board called in the SFO and fresh inquiries were started.

Mr Walker built Brent Walker into one of the UK's largest business empires, but it collapsed in 1990 owing pounds 1.5bn. He was made bankrupt with debts of pounds 180m. He fought his case on legal aid, and is considering legal action against the company for compensation. He said: 'I question the company's motives for starting the second investigation.' Mr Walker said bank creditors had forced Brent Walker directors to fire him with a 'lose him or liquidate' ultimatum, and in his opinion, the company's decision to sack him was a 'ruse' to have a second SFO investigation launched. It was 'completely spurious'.

Mr Walker and Aquilina were alleged to have masterminded a pounds 19.3m fraud to inflate profits in the film division and fool investors into putting money into the company. The prosecution claimed the pair invented 16 bogus film sales to apparently independent purchasers, which were allegedly no more than front companies. Money was routed through overseas banks and a family trust, and then covered up with a mass of false documentation. The SFO called evidence from nearly 80 witnesses.

Mr Walker spent 12 days in the witness box 'fighting for my life', repeatedly telling the jury he was innocent. He admitted that some movement of money from the company looked odd and insisted that his signature had been forged on many vital documents. However, the defence suggested that other directors were behind any wrongdoing.

On leaving the court, Mr Walker ran a gauntlet of television cameras, photographers and reporters. A news conference was hastily arranged at a nearby firm of solicitors, but the meeting was delayed when his wife, Jean, and her daughters became trapped in a lift.

Mr Walker said he had enjoyed the support of many friends in the business community and felt he still had something to give the leisure industry. He currently runs a small import/export business trading with states in the former Soviet Union. He criticised the SFO for bringing the case and the judge for the way he had handled the six-day summing-up. Mr Walker said SFO investigators seemed solely concerned with trying to get him convicted, rather than finding out the truth.

(Photograph omitted) SFO shaken, page 30 View from City Road, page 31