Final Guinness fraud trial ends in acquittal of Ward

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THE SAGA of the Guinness trials ended yesterday when Thomas Ward, a former director of the company, was cleared by a jury at the Old Bailey of stealing pounds 5.2m from the drinks group.

It was the fourth and final trial after Guinness's audacious pounds 2.7bn takeover of Distillers in 1986. Mr Ward, 53, an American lawyer, said: 'Thank God, thank you all,' as the verdict was delivered after its six and a half hours of deliberation.

The judge, Mr Justice Turner, promised a 'few comments on fraud trials generally' after he rules on costs this morning. Fraud trials have been coming under increasing criticism for being too long and too complicated.

After fighting extradition from the United States for two years, Mr Ward returned voluntarily to counter prosecution allegations that he plotted with his friend Ernest Saunders, the former Guinness chief executive, to steal the money.

On the stand he argued his pounds 5.2m payment was a legitimate success fee negotiated with Mr Saunders for his vital contribution to the bid negotiations. It was based on a fifth of 1 per cent of the value of the takeover, he said.

Mr Ward said yesterday that the trial had been a 'long-haul' but he did not regret his involvement with Guinness. He did regret that a lot of good people had been hurt because of 'what I think of as totally misplaced prosecutions'. When asked which prosecutions he was referring to, he said: 'I think all of the trials.'

Mr Ward was the eighth man brought to trial by the Serious Fraud Office after it uncovered an illegal share support operation mounted with the help of well-known individuals in the City during the bid by Guinness to ensure victory against its rival Argyll, the supermarket group. In the first trial, in 1990, Ernest Saunders was jailed for five years, a sentence halved by the Court of Appeal, after being convicted of theft, conspiracy and false accounting.

He was released from jail after 10 months, suffering from suspected Alzheimer's disease. Mr Saunders believes his illness was caused by drugs which he was taking to combat depression. Mr Saunders, who has complained to the European Court about his case, intends to object to the Home Secretary about 'unfair' references made by the prosecution in Mr Ward's trial.

Three other City figures - a stockbroker, Anthony Parnes; Gerald Ronson, head of the Heron Group, and Jack Lyons, a management consultant who advised on the bid - were convicted on similar charges.

However, the second Guinness trial, which began in September 1991, was halted after four months when Roger Seelig, who worked for Morgan Grenfell, the merchant bank advising Guinness, collapsed under the strain of defending himself. The court heard that he was in danger of attempting suicide if forced to carry on.

Mr Seelig said yesterday that he was 'pleased to see the end of an extremely long judicial process'. Lord Spens, his co- defendant, was found not guilty last November.

A third trial involving David Mayhew, a stockbroker with Cazenove, which also advised Guinness, was dropped in February 1992 after fresh evidence.

Asked yesterday what he thought of the SFO, Mr Ward said: 'There are some institutions that aren't worthy of comment.'

Hard negotiator, page 18

Commentary, page 19