Matter of trust and missing millions

Bidding for 'rip-roaring' story could top pounds 1,000,000
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STEVE BOGGAN

"I trusted him then as I trust him now," said Ian Maxwell as he stood outside the court, his arm round his brother's shoulder, eyes red from weeping. In the final analysis, that is what it had all come down to: trust.

That more than pounds 400m in pension fund assets had gone missing was not in dispute. It was the manner in which they were spirited away that had occupied the jury for eight months; and in that manner lay appalling abuses of trust.

The trustees of the Maxwell pension funds had trusted Robert Maxwell to invest and safeguard the savings of their members. When he chose to risk those savings to prop up a crumbling business empire, he asked his sons to authorise their movement. In turn, the jury accepted, Ian and Kevin Maxwell had trusted in their father's assurances that the money he was taking was his by right.

It was not. But the jury accepted yesterday that the brothers believed it was.

The verdict left pensioners bemused, politicians angry and law enforcement officers shattered. With Robert Maxwell dead and with his sons acquitted, they had no one left to blame for Britain's biggest pensions fiasco. Maxwell pensioners, whose funds have, for the most part, now been secured, were stunned by the verdict.

"It sends out an appalling message," said Nigel Spackman of the Maxwell Pensioners Action Group.

"Whether criminal or not, there was an enormous degree of laxity in the care and control of the money which belonged to the pensioners. People have now been seen to have got away with that."

The saddest thing of all, he said, was that the whole sorry episode could happen again. "The new Pensions Act doesn't go far enough," he said. "If someone is determined to misuse pension funds, there is still nothing to stop them. At least if something positive had come out of all this it would be some consolation. But nothing has."

Ken Trench, chairman of the Mirror Pensioners' Action Group, said they would be asking for early publication of a report into how pensions regulators failed to stop pounds 440m going missing from a pounds 695m pension fund. "A report was produced by IMRO but we still don't know what was in it. We were told it would be published but it was sub judice until the end of the trial," he said "We now intend to ask when the report will be published. We need to know what it says so everyone knows what went wrong and what needs to be done to protect pension funds in future."

That was not something with which the brothers Maxwell concerned themselves last night. Kevin, who was bankrupted to the tune of pounds 406m in 1992, can look forward to being discharged within a year and both can expect lucrative careers in business.

Even during their darkest hours, neither brother lived in penury. Home for Kevin has been a 14-bedroom 16th-century mansion in Berkshire. The property, set in 10 acres on the banks of the Thames, was bought for him and his family by his wife Pandora's father. Four of their five children still attend private schools.

Ian and Laura Maxwell have been living more modestly in a rented house in Islington, north London. Both brothers have been working for Westbourne Communications, a business consultancy based in Mayfair and run, according to documents at Companies House, by Jean Baddeley, Robert Maxwell's former personal assistant.

If the brothers have their future planned out, they have not said so, but publishers and newspapers are expected to begin clamouring for their story. Their mother, Elizabeth, is reported to have received pounds 100,000 for her memoirs, published last year by Pan Macmillan. Yesterday, one respected literary agent said bidding for the brothers' story would be in six figures. "It could top a million," he said. "It's a rip-roaring story. All the big publishing houses will be bidding."

If it is ever published, the last chapter may well record the mystery of their father's death ... and Kevin's only regret.

Alun Jones QC said, in outlining Kevin's defence, that there was no evidence to support the belief that Maxwell's death was suicide "by a man who knew that the game was up". And there lies the heart of the mystery. No one knows exactly what happened on board the Lady Ghislaine. Forensic evidence seems to support the accident or murder theories, and Kevin testified that the spot on the yacht's deck from which his father fell was without a guard rail.

When Maxwell's youngest son - whom he had marked to take control of his empire - first heard of his father's death he thought it might have been an accident, murder, or that there had been a robbery motive. "It never occurred to me that [my father] would have committed suicide ... I wasn't thinking on those lines and never did," Kevin said.

But exactly how Robert Maxwell died remains an enigma that will haunt the brothers. As will the the regret that Kevin feels: that he was unable to save his father's group from ruin.

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