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Civil servants 'bribed' by computer firm

CIVIL servants were among clients who took bribes from a computer firm to secure orders, according to the Department of Trade and Industry.

The Serious Fraud Office said yesterday that it had been passed a copy of the DTI report, published last week, into the pounds 1bn collapse of Atlantic in 1990. The report also alleges that senior managers in some of Britain's largest companies took bribes.

It is understood that SFO interest focuses on evidence that government officials and senior managers in the private sector accepted bribes from Atlantic. These allegations are buried towards the end of the 380-page report which took five years and cost more than pounds 5m.

Atlantic, which leased computers, included among its clients a number of public sector agencies including the Atomic Energy Authority and British Rail, as well as very large private concerns such as Boots, British Aerospace, American Express and Standard Chartered Bank.

The report says: 'There were grounds for believing that payments had been made to customers' employees by way of inducement to deal with Atlantic; in one case the salesman admitted such conduct to Atlantic's legal staff.'

Inquiries by the Independent and Computer Weekly have established that some of these inducements were paid to civil servants. The DTI report does not name names, but former company salesman have privately confirmed that some receiving inducements were civil servants.

The report goes on to allege a 'significant number of incidents of improper business practices, in some cases amounting to dishonesty, carried out in different parts of Atlantic by employees up to high management levels'.

One salesman was told by senior management to account for his bribes using false invoices purporting to be for consultancy services to the company. He was forced to this because 'an employee in the accounts department refused to authorise payment under a claim for expenses'.

The report describes how Atlantic was an aggressive sales company and adds: 'We have become aware of a number of allegations concerning bribery of customers.'

The report identifies a number of other concerns over the sale of Atlantic to the financial services company British & Commonwealth, in 1988, and the collapse of both companies in 1990. The report showed how Atlantic had manipulated its profits both before and after the takeover; the incompetence of advisers working for B&C and the connivance of senior B&C personnel.

The sale of Atlantic made millions for some directors, including Vernon Davies, who contested Sheffield Central constituency for the Conservative party in 1992, and is said to be seeking a safe seat at the next election. Mr Davies is accused by the inspectors of 'deliberate misrepresentation' during the sale of Atlantic.

Michael Heseltine, President of the Board of Trade, is seeking the disqualification of some of the leading figures in the saga as directors.