How the Levitt deal was hammered out

Fraud Office gave in to demands for bargain, report John Eisenhammer and John Willcock

Roger Levitt, the archetypal Eighties man, new money and lots of it, socialite and former commercial manager of heavyweight boxing champion Lennox Lewis, knew he had the Serious Fraud Office on the ropes.

After a series of failed high-profile prosecutions, the SFO was growing ever more nervous. From an initial charge sheet running to 62 offences surrounding the pounds 34m collapse of Levitt's investment business, only a handful remained.

The rest had been whittled away in bargaining between the two sets of lawyers. When the Levitt Financial Services Group failed amid allegations that Levitt had doctored accounts, claimed investors funds were actually his "fees" and misled Fimbra, the financial services regulator, turning a pounds 13m loss into a pounds 13m profit, a lengthy prison sentence seemed inevitable.

However, when Terry Ramsden received a suspended prison sentence in another case prosecuted by the SFO, Levitt could smell freedom. Ramsden, head of Glen International, was accused of fraudulently attracting pounds 90m from investors even though his company was secretly ruined.

Levitt had rejected increasingly generous plea bargains offered by the prosecution; after the Ramsden fiasco, a demoralised SFO appeared ready to capitulate.

It was perhaps appropriate that the key negotiations at the High Court were begun in the lavatories.

Overtures from the prosecution began in earnest on Monday1 November 1993 when Jane Bewsey, junior counsel for the Crown, met Sasha Wass, junior counsel for Levitt, in the lavatory and raised the subject of a deal with generous terms. The next day, senior Crown counsel, David Cocks QC, spoke to defence counsel in the SFO's room at Chichester Rents in London, where the Levitt trial was to take place, again pressing for a deal.

In her written record of that meeting, Ms Wass stated: "David Cocks suggested that a plea to the charge of misleading Fimbra alone would not meet his requirements. However, he would be prepared to accept a plea to that allegation were it to be coupled with a plea to one of the counts on the personal investor section of the indictment."

A letter by Howard Godfrey QC, senior counsel for one of Levitt's three co-defendants, stated: "I can say that, on a number of occasions, the Prosecution (either Cocks or Fisher, or both) raised with me the possibility of my client pleading to 'Fimbra only' on the assumption that some modified plea could be agreed with Levitt."

But to the astonishment of all concerned, Roger Levitt refused all deals offered, stating that he was "not prepared to spend one hour in jail". As the Crown discussed deals which implied increasingly lenient sentences, Levitt continued to refuse any admission of guilt.

The situation was suddenly transformed by news of the outcome of the Ramsden trial. Understanding that Ramsden had been involved in a more serious fraud trial and received a suspended sentence, Levitt demanded a deal.

In her written record of events, Ms Wass noted her discussion with Crown counsel on Sunday 21 November 1993. "I told him that Levitt was 'up in arms' about the Ramsden sentence. I said that Levitt felt that if Ramsden could walk free . . . he too would be 'interested in doing a similar deal with the prosecution' if he would not lose his liberty. I added that as things stood, Levitt was only prepared to offer a plea to the charge of misleading Fimbra."

Legal experts concur that any experienced prosecuting counsel would have understood that this charge alone was most unlikely to carry a prison sentence. Having initially been charged by the SFO on 62 counts, carrying in the view of the defence a sentence of up to 10 years imprisonment, the plea-bargaining deal had now come down to the lightest possible charge. Aware that Levitt would only accept a non-custodial sentence, Crown counsel held a lengthy meeting on the morning of 22 November with George Staple, director of the SFO. The SFO agreed not to pursue all other charges in return for a guilty plea to the minor charge.

All the counsel for the Crown and the defence assembled before Mr Justice Laws for a private discussion in chambers later that same day. Jonathan Goldberg QC, Levitt's counsel, explained the Ramsden case, and made it clear that Levitt wanted a similar non-custodial deal by pleading guilty to misleading Fimbra only.

According to the transcript of the meeting, Mr Justice Laws said: "You mean, to put it crudely Mr Goldberg, that if I say I will give him [Levitt] a suspended sentence on the basis of a proffered plea, then if he does not accept your advice, the Court is not embarrassed if he goes down for a substantial immediate term after a full conviction in three months time?" Mr Goldberg replied: "Yes".

Later in the same discussion Mr Cocks, for the Crown, said: "What we have indicated is that we have said that that is a plea which we would accept in the circumstances. That is a matter for us. We have taken instructions on it with the Director of Serious Fraud Office and we have come to that conclusion." The sentence was entirely a matter for the judge.

After a short break for deliberation, Mr Justice Laws informed all counsel: "On the specific basis of the prospective plea outlined to me - namely that there will be an admission of the deceptions of Fimbra, but no admission of any other part of the case - I would not pass an immediate prison sentence."

Later that afternoon, the trial went into open court, Levitt entered his guilty plea, and Mr Cocks accepted it for the prosecution. On Friday 26 November, Levitt was sentenced to 180 hours community service. Amid national uproar, the SFO and the Attorney General denied that a deal had been offered by the Crown or that they had been aware Levitt would not receive a custodial sentence.

John Perry, Levitt's solicitor, said last week: "I regret to say that the Attorney General has not been a beacon of light on this occasion. There has taken place in my view and that of other defence lawyers in the Levitt trial a concerted attempt to hide the fact that a plea deal was done, and the prosecution knew full well it involved Roger Levitt receiving a non-custodial sentence if it were to take place at all."

The Attorney General's office maintained that the House was not misled.

ARCHETYPAL EIGHTIES MAN

Roger Levitt ran an investment advisory company in north London which crashed in 1993 with debts of pounds 34m. Mr Levitt lied to the investment regulator, Fimbra, in a desperate attempt to keep his company afloat.

Mr Levitt's company advised people on their personal investments, including his friend the author Frederick Forsyth. Mr Levitt ploughed pounds 900,000 of Mr Forsyth's money into his business instead of investing it in bonds as he was supposed to do.

Following the collapse the Serious Fraud Office initially brought 62 charges against Mr Levitt covering the entire spectrum of fraud. These were whittled down to 22 counts of indictment and finally to just one charge on conviction in November 1993. He was sentenced at Southwark Crown Court to 180 hours community service and banned from being a director for seven years. He is currently working as a boxing promoter in London.

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