Viscount's son cheated Tesco out of £355,000 to fund music festival

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The Independent Online

A "kind and obsessed" aristocrat who stretched Tesco's well-known slogan "Every little helps" to its limits by cheating the company out of £355,000 to bankroll a music festival has been jailed for 30 months.

Alexander Trenchard, son and heir of Viscount Trenchard, was director of the Standon Calling music festival, which boasted acts such as Florence and the Machine, Friendly Fires and Mumford & Sons, in the grounds of his parents' 16th-century mansion.

He was taken on by Tesco in 2002 as a graduate trainee and rapidly promoted to the £70,000-a-year post of corporate affairs manager, and was allowed a company credit card.

While struggling to pay the festival's bills, and already having used his own money to pay off debts from the event in 2007, he began using the card to draw cash to clear the money owed. Over 21 months he drew and spent £196,000 in cash, and the total debt run up to Tesco was £355,000.

The 32-year-old aristocrat admitted one charge of theft and one of fraud by misrepresentation.

In jailing Trenchard for 30 months, Judge Tyler, sitting at Aylesbury Crown Court, described the offences as a grave breach of trust. He added: "I accept this became an obsession, rather like gambling, but the fact is it went on for a significant amount of time."

Trenchard was told he must serve at least 15 months of his sentence. Lord and Lady Trenchard have paid off their son's debts, though he will have to repay them when he comes out of jail, and have said the 2011 festival can continue to be held in the grounds of their historic seat, Standon Lordship, near Ware, Hertfordshire.

They said in a family statement: "Alex deeply regrets his actions, and feels great remorse for the distress he has caused. He can be assured of the love and support of his family. All the money was repaid in full to his former employer."

Trenchard's great grandfather was created the 1st Viscount in 1936 in recognition of his work establishing the Royal Air Force. He was dubbed the Father of the RAF.

The festival started a decade ago as a birthday party for the defendant, but it became an annual event, which this year is expected to attract 5,000 people and make a profit for the first time. Last year it broke even, but in 2009 it suffered debts of about £300,000.

One of the reasons Trenchard was so anxious for the festival to survive despite going into debt was that it raised cash for the Phoenix House charity which helps people suffering from drug and alcohol abuse and with mental health problems.

Graham MacVoy, festival director for this year's event, said the festival will go ahead as planned this year, and said: "I know that Alex very much regrets his actions and feels great remorse for the distress he has caused. But the festival is about more than just one person."

In court, Kevin West, for the prosecution, said: "He had been using the credit card to withdraw cash and pay for things not related to his job."

An audit at Tesco's head office uncovered the swindle and in May last year Trenchard was interviewed by the supermarket's security staff. He admitted the offences. Patrick Gibbs, for the defence, presented a series of character references to the judge which, he said, summed Trenchard up as "kind and obsessed". He said: "Standon Calling is a festival which has always been run by this defendant. He became completely obsessed with it. He has let down his family, his wife and two children."