Littlewoods prompts trader's arrest for bribes

Singapore charges UK businessman in latest episode of pools family's war against former executives
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A leading British businessman has been charged with 205 counts of corruption in Singapore after details of his alleged activities were passed to the authorities by Littlewoods, the Liverpool-based mail order, pools and stores group.

Nicholas Leese, 39, was charged with receiving bribes between November 1992 and December 1994. He was granted bail and was required to hand over his passport to Singapore's Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau. Mr Leese denies the charges and has elected to stand trial.

The arrest of Mr Leese is the latest episode in the investigation by the billionaire Moores family, who own Littlewoods, into a deal struck five years ago by several of the company's former senior executives.

Two years ago, the Moores asked Network Security, a corporate investigation agency, to look at a joint venture in the Far East between Littlewoods and a trading group called Lorad.

When he was in charge, in 1991, Sir Desmond Pitcher, Littlewoods' then chief, became frustrated at the amount the company was paying to Far- East middlemen to secure products for the high-street stores. With Barry Dale, his deputy, and Prodip Guha, Littlewoods' international director, he set up the company's own operation and cut out the middlemen.

Lorad, a Far-East trading company run by Mr Leese, let Littlewoods use its offices and contacts. Registered in the Virgin Islands, Lorad is owned by the Leese family.

The joint venture between Littlewoods and Lorad aroused the suspicion of the Moores. They thought Lorad was benefiting disproportionately from the association.

For years one wing of the faction-ridden family had become concerned at the power wielded by the company executives, whom they felt were taking the group away from the roots laid down by Sir John Moores, its famous founder.

Under the deal, Lorad was paid a 15-per-cent commission on Littlewoods' Far-East orders, while Nicholas Leese received an annual consultancy fee.

Network was called in and the ensuing investigation embarr- assed Littlewoods, amid claims that it was using private detectives to spy on its own executives. The Moores were accused of trying to wrest back day-to-day control from their staff. The bitter dispute prompted a management crisis at Littlewoods and dented the company's staid, wholesome image.

The inquiry led to the departures of the three key executives. In October 1995 Mr Guha was dismissed after he was photographed in an unsanctioned meeting with a journalist.

Last year Mr Dale was sacked, after being presented with Network's findings on him.

Sir Desmond, by then the chairman of North-West Water and a non-executive director of Littlewoods, went after he was shown to have met Mr Dale after he had been fired.

The arrest of Mr Leese in Singapore further underlines the determination of the Moores family not to let the matter rest. A Littlewoods spokeswoman said yesterday that the company would be "co-operating fully with the Singapore authorities".