Lottery watchdog's 'free trips'

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The Independent Online

Peter Davis, the head of the National Lottery watchdog, threatened legal action against Richard Branson yesterday in the growing row over allegations of an attempted bribe in the bidding for the lottery.

He then plunged the National Lottery into further controversy, admitting to members of the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee that he took flights in a private jet belonging to GTech, the American lottery equipment company that has a 22.5 per cent stake in Camelot, operators of the National Lottery.

Mr Davis said his decision to use the aircraft had been wise and had saved taxpayers money. But Alan Williams MP, a member of the committee, accused him of being "an innocent abroad" when it came to dealing with such companies.

The "bribes"dispute erupted after Mr Branson alleged in a BBC Panorama programme last night that the boss of a US company with a stake in the National Lottery operator, Camelot, offered him a bribe to pull out of the race to run the lottery. He said he had told Mr Davis about the alleged bribery attempt. Mr Davis, director-general of Oflot, denied he was told of the alleged meeting in September 1993 between Mr Branson, chairman of the Virgin group, and Guy Snowden, chairman of GTech. Mr Branson claims he was offered the inducement to withdraw from the bidding after it was revealed his own bid would be non-profit-making.

Oflot issued a statement yesterday, before last night's broadcast, saying: "Mr Branson's statement is untrue; any suggestion Mr Branson mentioned the allegation to Mr Davis, and he ignored such an allegation of impropriety, impugns the integrity of the director-general. Accordingly Oflot is consulting legal advisers." GTech is also considering legal action.

Mr Snowden has written to Mr Davis demanding an emergency inquiry. But a spokesman for Mr Branson said he would welcome a legal challenge. He said Mr Branson was considering legal action against GTech for suggesting he was lying.

Panorama also said last night GTech was the subject of FBI investigations concerning alleged bribes paid to officials in the United States with state lottery contracts.

The bribery allegations have been denied by Camelot, which is making profits of pounds 1m a week from the National Lottery.