Lunch left Branson with indigestion

Lottery bribes row: Millionaire tells of meeting with GTECH boss and how he shared concern with Oflot
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The Independent Online
The six men in the room nodded politely to each other. Four of them stood at one end, chatting and waiting for the meeting to begin. Two sat at the table, going through their papers.

One, Richard Branson, had been brooding for 48 hours about what he was going to say. No sooner - by his account and those of his two colleagues - had he greeted Peter Davis, the director general of Oflot, the lottery regulator, than he dropped the bombshell.

How could a committee headed by Mr Davis have sanctioned awarding the lottery to Camelot? Mr Branson argued that one of Camelot's shareholders and the company that would be running the game on behalf of the consortium, GTECH, had been pilloried in the press for its handling of lotteries in America.

Mr Branson retold his own experience of dealing with them, when Guy Snowden, the GTECH co-chairman, had made him a bizarre offer - which he believed was a bribe.

Mr Davis, according to the Branson version, launched into a strong defence of GTECH, saying the American firm had been looked at by Interpol and given a clear bill of health.

It was all over in seconds. Mr Davis made clear his lack of intention to rake over the American company's antecedents and Mr Branson and his two colleagues, John Jackson and Gerard Tyrrell, sat down. The formal discussion began into why, two days previously, Mr Branson's Lottery Foundation bid had proved unsuccessful.

That was in May 1994 at Oflot's headquarters in Haymarket, London. Eight months previously, over on the other side of town, in the very different surroundings of Mr Branson's family home cum business headquarters in Holland Park, another meeting had taken place.

Keen to explore the possibility of running a non-profit-making draw, Mr Branson and Mr Jackson, his bid co-ordinator, had suggested a lunchtime meeting with Mr Snowden of GTECH, the world's biggest specialist lottery operator.

The company was not alone - other companies, like IBM and ICL, had been contacted to see what they could bring to the Branson table.

GTECH, as Mr Branson knew, was committed to the Camelot consortium, but he made his pitch anyway: would GTECH be interested in joining him? Snowden could not see what was in it for GTECH and, besides, it was already tied to Camelot. The only way GTECH could help Mr Branson would be if he joined the Camelot consortium.

It was then, according to the Branson-Jackson account, that Mr Snowden made his play. Over the sweet course, he said: "Well, I don't know how to phrase this, Richard. There is always a bottom line. In what way can I help you, Richard? I'm sure everybody needs something."

Mr Branson did not ask him what, exactly, he had in mind but soon after, left the rom, went up the stairs to the toilet, and made a hasty note of what had just been said.

Soon after Mr Branson returned, the lunch ended and Mr Snowden left. Snowden categorically denies having offered Mr Branson a bribe. Later that afternoon - two days later, according to the other side, although the lunch had been on a Friday and Mr Branson would not have been in London on a Sunday - Sir Tim Bell, the public relations guru, called.

Appointed by British Airways to deal with the media fall-out from the airline's dirty tricks campaign against Virgin, he was viewed with deep suspicion in the Branson camp. Intrigued as to what he wanted - and anxious that Will Whitehorn, his own PR man, should bear witness -Branson put his phone on the speaker.

Mr Branson and Mr Whitehorn say Sir Tim did not beat about the bush. He said he acted for GTECH and was following up on the lunch meeting. He had heard it had not gone well and he was concerned Mr Snowden may have said unfortunate things he might regret. According to Mr Branson and Mr Whitehorn, Sir Tim asked: "Are you going to be saying anything about it?"

Mr Branson's reply, they claim, was succinct: "What's the point? I'm going to bid for the lottery."

The Bell version is different. There was a phone call following Mr Snowden's lunch. It was at Mr Snowden's request, to tell Mr Branson his approach to GTECH would be put to the Camelot board. Did Sir Tim say those words? "Absolutely not."

Mr Branson is itching for a writ, challenging Mr Davis, GTECH, Mr Snowden and Sir Tim to sue him. If they do, a great public battle hinging on his word and those of his team against theirs, is promised.