Family of frauds and feuds

Nick Cohen tells how Graham Tomlins' favour for a relative led to a legal nightmare
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The Independent Online
GRAHAM TOMLINS, who last week became the first Briton to escape extradition to America, is a small businessman whose life was all but destroyed by a grubby fraud and a more than usually vicious family feud.

It started innocently enough. Mr Tomlins, now 47, who had spent 25 years working for Barclays Bank, was asked by his sister-in-law Zeeta McKnight to come out to the United States and help set up a database for the loan company she ran with her husband, Jim.

He left his wife and three children at home in Northampton and went to the offices of Certified Financial in Atlanta, Georgia, in the autumn of 1991. What he saw was a little disquieting. The telesales girls trying to sell loans to the poor in the southern city seemed very aggressive.

"But I told myself it was a foreign country and you have to expect things to be different," he said yesterday. "I just got on with my work. I was in and out of Georgia within a fortnight."

The FBI and Georgia state authorities quickly showed that Mr Tomlins' unease was well founded. Certified Financial was a scam, they discovered.

The fraud worked like this. The company found people who had no chance of raising money from mainstream banks. It promised them loans, but before they could get the money they had to give the company $250 (pounds 160) up front. The loans never materialised. Victims' complaints were ignored and the fees were not returned.

Zeeta and Sam McKnight were charged with fraud. Before the 1992 trial Mr Tomlins' name was not mentioned by either the prosecutors or the defendants. But when she came into the witness box, Mr Tomlins' sister-in-law proved more than willing to put him in jeopardy.

Zeeta McKnight had done a "sweetheart deal" with the prosecutors. In return for a reduced sentence she agreed to give evidence against her husband. Instead of implicating Jim McKnight, however, she told the surprised court that her sister's husband was the real villain.

Graham had set up and run another advance fee loan fraud with her in Florida in 1989, she said. He had then planned and helped her run the Atlanta operation, hired some of the telemarketers, and prepared a script for them to use when they made their sales pitch. He had not stayed in the US for a mere fortnight in 1991, but had prolonged his visit into November, when the complaints had started to flood in.

The US Justice Department swung into action and an extradition request went to the British Crown Prosecution Service.

The case against him seemed strong. But Mr Tomlins had hired the two lawyers who fought the long battle to stop the extradition of Sally-Anne Croft and Susan Hagan, the women convicted last week in Oregon of conspiring to murder a US official investigating the commune where they lived in the 1980s.

Both lawyers knew that they had to get incontestable evidence if they were going to stop a deportation to Britain's principal ally. Edward Fitzgerald, QC, and Andrew McCooey went to Georgia and soon found that the McKnight family were at each other's throats. They got affidavits from the couple's grown-up children and presented them to the British courts. Zeeta's son, Winston, said his father had threatened his mother, hit her and told her to "blame that f***ing limey brother-in-law of yours".

The couple's other son, Anthony, confirmed that his mother had been beaten and said his father had set up the business with his mother and that Graham Tomlins had merely helped them with the computer system.

Other parts of the prosecution case quickly began to fall apart. Documentary evidence was produced to show that Graham Tomlins could not have run the Florida fraud in 1989 because he was still working full-time for Barclays. More statements showed that Mr Tomlins had left Georgia when he said he had done so and could not have known that victims of the fraud were complaining.

Once she had received her reduced sentence of three years and seen her husband walk free, Zeeta McKnight refused to give an affidavit to the prosecutors saying that the claims she had made about her-brother-in-law in court were true. Mr Tomlins' lawyers said the primary evidence against Mr Tomlins was an uncorroborated statement made in the dock by his sister- in-law who was, according to her children, being threatened by a violent husband.

"We were astonished that the Americans even wanted to extradite him," said Mr McCooey. "But they think the British courts have given them a blank cheque when it comes to deportations." So it appeared. When the case went to Bow Street, the stipendiary magistrate agreed to extradite Mr Tomlins.

But when his lawyers appealed to the Divisional Court, Lord Justice Glidewell overturned the decision because the "evidence against him was worthless". He said the magistrates' ruling was "irrational and perverse".

On Monday the Law Lords, the highest court in the land, agreed and threw out the last attempt by the Americans to get their hands on Mr Tomlins. The four-year affair was over.

"I should feel euphoric," he said. "But I'm still coming out of shock. I am starting to realise what freedom means."