Levitt made deal with SFO to avoid jail, lawyer says

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The Independent Online

Financial Correspondent

Investment adviser Roger Levitt agreed a plea bargain with the Serious Fraud Office to avoid a prison sentence when he was convicted of fraudulent trading, his solicitor claimed yesterday.

The SFO has always rejected claims that it had struck a deal with Levitt when he was sentenced to 180 hours' community service after admitting he misled City regulators.

John Perry, the solicitor who represented Levitt, told Radio Five Live last night that the SFO's counsel had twice approached the defence with a plea bargain, which the defence rejected. Later, Levitt's counsel proposed that certain charges be dropped in return for a guilty plea to a less serious offence.

Today, a Conservative MP, John Marshall, will ask the Attorney General, Sir Nicholas Lyell, in the Commons whether he misled the House in November 1993 when he denied that any plea bargain had taken place. The sentence given to Mr Levitt caused a furore after his investment company crashed with debts of pounds 34m.

The SFO denied agreeing to any plea bargains 18 months ago, and reaffirmed that position when told of Mr Perry's claim. Mr Perry said that after rejecting the SFO's two overtures another case grabbed his attention in which a man pleaded guilty to "rather a serious fraud. He got a suspended sentence."

On Sunday 21 November, 1993, Mr Perry discussed this case with Levitt. The following week, he approached the prosecution suggesting the basis on which Levitt would plead guilty to a minor matter, but which was conditional on receiving an indication that he would not receive an immediate custodial sentence. An agreement was struck and Levitt changed his plea to guilty to misleading the investment regulator, Fimbra.

Mr Marshall, after being told about Mr Perry's claims, said: "I am very troubled indeed over this allegation that the Attorney General misled, no doubt unwittingly, the House of Commons." The Attorney General's office referred questions on the Levitt case to the SFO.

Levitt, now a boxing promoter, was prosecuted alongside his former managing director, Mark Reed, 40, who was sentenced to 120 hours' community service. Both men admitted fraudulent trading with intent to defraud creditors by deceiving Fimbra, the City watchdog.

Passing sentence, Mr Justice Laws said that while fraudulent trading carried a maximum of seven years' imprisonment, he felt justice "required him" to compare the men's crimes with the less serious offence of making false and misleading statements. That carried an upper limit of two years in jail.

Last week a spokeswoman for the SFO said it stuck to its position after the trial, despite Mr Perry's claims: "We didn't offer (a plea) - but we accepted one."

When asked whether the SFO had twice approached the defence with a proposed plea bargain, the spokeswoman said: "I have no knowledge of that."