Secrets and lies as the rogue trader prepares for freedom

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NICK LEESON, whose fraudulent and disastrous deals broke Britain's oldest merchant bank with debts of pounds 860m, will be released from prison in Singapore today amid controversy over plans to sell his story.

The former Barings trader's last day behind bars saw varied and conflicting tales of how he had salted away pounds 2m of Barings' money, got himself a job managing the prison accounts and made a recovery from cancer. Tales of his hidden millions and controlling prison funds were dismissed yesterday as fanciful and probably engineered by Leeson himself.

Former colleagues described him as a "compulsive liar" who seemed to be desperate to show that he was actually ingenious enough to beat the system, and at the same time raise his current market value.

For the Daily Mail, this is supposed to be upwards of pounds 100,000. The Solicitor General, Ross Cranston, has said payment to a convicted criminal seemed an "appropriate" case for investigation by the Press Complaints Commission.

Yesterday a Daily Mail executive said "we're saying nothing" about the matter. The newspaper is said to be attempting to get around the PCC code on the matter by putting the fees towards Leeson's future cancer treatment.

The commission said yesterday that if there were complaints about the Mail paying Leeson there would be an investigation. Asked whether paying medical expenses would avoid censure, a spokesman said: "The purpose of the Code of Practice is to stop people benefiting. I don't think there is a way around the code but we would have to see the details."

The PCC pointed out that newspapers are not in breach of the code in paying convicted criminals as long as the material published was in the public interest. However, if there was no such defence, payment of a medical bill is likely to be in breach of the code.

Rogue Trader, a film on the Barings affair, reportedly earned Leeson pounds 450,000. This money, from film rights to his autobiography, was said to have gone towards his legal fees.

There was also confusion about the state of Leeson's health. Geraldine Tan of the Singapore prisons department said: "At his last check-up on 23 June, doctors assessed the cancer to be in complete clinical remission."

His solicitors said that in August 1998 he had an emergency operation to remove a tumour and has since had six months of chemotherapy. He has been told that he has a 70 per cent chance of living for five years. According to people who have seen him recently, most his hair has now gone and his weight has plummeted.

Leeson has served two-thirds of a six-and-half-year term and has been given early release for good behaviour. He will be officially deported after being freed from Tanah Merah prison and is then expected to fly to London and make a statement at Heathrow airport tomorrow morning. His solicitor, Stephen Pollard, said Leeson was "nervous ... but OK".

Mr Pollard dismissed suggestions that Leeson has pounds 2m salted away. The allegationcame from a fellow inmate, Abdul Amin, who said Leeson had boasted to him about it.

The Singapore law firm Rajah and Tann, representing the liquidators of Barings Futures Singapore, has said that it will investigate whether a hidden fund exists. But Mr Pollard said: "This is absurd. He has answered every question they [the liquidators] put to him."

Former colleagues of Leeson point out that he showed a singular lack of imagination when trying to cover his tracks after the catastrophic and unauthorised deals in Japanese stock exchange futures. All the deals were done through a single account, making it easy for the authorities to track what happened. One former Barings employee said: "The main thing about what happened was the sheer incompetence of Leeson. He now appears to be trying to glamourise what happened and spun this line to the prisoner. He was always a bit of a Walter Mitty, I am afraid."

Singapore prison authorities also dismissed reports that Leeson had been " in charge of the accounts" at Tanah Merah. They said that he was looking after books covering prisoners' pocket money at the workshop and "the sums involved were very small".