Lottery rival offered Branson bribe to drop out of bidding, QC says

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The Independent Online
Richard Branson claims the head of a firm running the National Lottery tried to bribe him. He also says he was accused of lying and now he is suing for libel. But he in turn is being counter-sued. Andrew Buncombe was in court yesterday as the unusual legal battle began.

Richard Branson spends a lot of time with a broad grin on his face, but yesterday he was frowning. His reputation as a man of honesty and integrity, the court was told, had been questioned and he was there to put things straight.

The events that led to the High Court began when Mr Branson was launching a bid to run the National Lottery in 1993. He invited one of his rivals to lunch to ask him to provide technical services to help run the lottery as a non-profit- making venture. That man, Guy Snowden, head of the US- based GTech, a firm making up what is now Camelot, was not interested in helping.

But George Carman QC, representing Mr Branson, said Mr Snowden was concerned about the entrepreneur's bid. At worst Mr Branson might win and at best his charitable intentions might persuade the Government to reduce the operator's profit. Mr Carman said that during the lunch at Mr Branson's London home Mr Snowden tried to bribe him to drop out. "It's as plain as a pikestaff that what Guy Snowden was about that day was floating a bribe in front of Richard Branson in order to get him out of the bidding." Mr Branson is suing Mr Snowden, GTech, and its spokesman, Robert Rendine, for saying he lied about the alleged bribe. Mr Snowden is suing Mr Branson for making the allegation.

The court was told that Mr Snowden said to Mr Branson: "I don't know how to phrase this, Richard. There's always a bottom line. I'll get to the point. In what way can we help you? I mean, what can I do for you personally?"

Mr Carman said: "Mr Branson said: 'What on earth do you mean?' and Mr Snowden said: 'Everybody needs something'." Mr Carman said Mr Branson replied: "Thank you very much. I'm quite successful. I only need one breakfast, one lunch, one dinner a day." Finding Mr Snowden's offer odious, Mr Branson had left the table and made a note of the conversation in the toilet, added the QC.

The court heard details of the alleged bribe were not publicly revealed until 1995, when Mr Branson was approached by a producer from Panorama. He said allegations of bribery had been made against GTech in the US and the company had been investigated by the FBI.

Mr Branson revealed the conversation from the lunch and agreed to appear on the programme.

Mr Justice Morland and the jury were played a recording of the programme.

Mr Carman said: "Nobody starts libel proceedings of this gravity with any great enthusiasm. But if you value your good name and you want to hold your head up high as an honest man, sometimes you have no alternative."

The case, expected to last four weeks, continues.