Judges throw out Guinness four's appeal

Sentences upheld over illegal share support scheme
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The Independent Online
JAMES CUSICK

The Court of Appeal yesterday upheld the convictions - which resulted in jail sentences and millions of pounds in fines - of the four men who took part in the illegal share price-fixing that helped Guinness win control of Distillers.

With the prospect of multi-million pounds claims for compensation if the appeals succeeded, there was relief in government circles and in the Serious Fraud Office over the decision.

The three appeal judges, headed by the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Taylor, upheld all but one of the 1990 jury's verdicts against Ernest Saunders, the former chairman of Guinness, Gerald Ronson, head of Heron International, Jack Lyons, the financier, and stockbroker Anthony Parnes.

Saunders was the organiser of an illegal share support scheme which paid out guarantees and "success fees" in return for help in boosting Guinness's share price in the pounds 2.7bn take-over battle. Charges of theft, conspiracy and false accounting were successfully brought against the four men.

However, the court yesterday quashed one of the convictions against Lyons, who was fined and had his knighthood withdrawn in 1991 after the first trial. Only Lyons, out of the four, did not spend time in jail.

Michael Howard. the Home Secretary, last year referred the case back to the Court of Appeal following the disclosure of new material which, it was argued, should have been disclosed before their trial.

The new material focused on claims that such share support operations were a "grey area" in the City and therefore those involved believed they were doing nothing dishonest - a claim that was rejected in the appeal judgment. A further basis of the appeal centred on the late arrival of the police into the Guinness investigations. Police were brought in nearly six months after the appointment of DTI inspectors.

The claim, rejected by the court, that this was an abuse of process, and denied those investigated their basic rights, will now be the issue argued out by Saunders and the UK government in the European Court of Human Rights in February.

The three others are expected to join the action, and if it succeeds all four could again find themselves before the Court of Appeal. A further appeal to the House of Lords has not been ruled out.

Lord Mishcon, solicitor for Ronson, said he had been instructed to examine what steps were available should the case go before the European Court.

Saunders, who was not in court for the decision, branded the judgment "politically convenient" and in "total conflict" with the ruling in May 1994 by the European Commission of Human Rights.

The judges made an order of pounds 50,000 from each of the four to go towards the total appeal costs set at pounds 378,292. It has been estimated that over the 10 years of the Guinness investigations the total cost is over pounds 20m.

Law report, page 16

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