I didn't fiddle expenses, says billionaire's worker

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The Independent Online

A farm manager employed by Britain's richest man, the billionaire packaging magnate Hans Rausing, financed a luxury lifestyle for his family on company expenses, a tribunal heard yesterday. Richard Bezant, 54, lavished thousands of pounds on treats for his family before he was sacked from his £36,500-year job as manager of the tycoon's 1,800-acre Sussex estate, said lawyers for Dr Rausing.

The tribunal was told that Mr Bezant, who had boasted he had access to six-figure sums held in Dr Rausing's accounts, used company funds to buy and stable two horses for his daughters and to pay for his wife in a five-star hotel in Portugal. He signed company cheques to pay for flights to Berlin and even charged Dr Rausing's estate for the upkeep of his cats and dogs, claiming they were working farm animals.

Without Dr Rausing's knowledge, the tribunal was told, he claimed expenses for clothes, including jeans and a ski jacket, and over three years charged £12,000 for the cleaning and heating of his rented 16th century home which, together with a £7,000-a-year pension, formed part of a generous benefits package.

The alleged irregularities were discovered last September by Dr Rausing, whose cardboard carton business, Tetra Pak, has made him Britain's wealthiest man, with a £4bn fortune. He immediately sacked Mr Bezant and his wife, Lanny, who ran the wild boar and venison side of the Wadhurst Park estate and they were told their home was to be sold within two days. Mr Bezant had worked for Mr Rausing for 22 years.

The Bezants are claiming unfair dismissal over the disputed expenses and additional claims by Dr Rausing that they failed to declare the expenses in their tax returns. Yesterday, at the tribunal in Ashford, Kent, Mr Bezant denied each allegation, saying anything bought for personal use with the cheque book of Wadhurst Estates Limited was repaid.

"I am an honest man. I am not a shady man and I am not untrustworthy," he said. "There were personal items I would occasionally purchase at the same time as things for work, as it made sense to make just one trip. I would repay those items."

The sacked manager was also said to have told a director of Wadhurst Park Estates: "If I really wanted to I could walk away with hundreds of thousands of pounds."

Mr Bezant said the horses were given to the farm by an animal charity with Dr Rausing's blessing, and he claimed the hotel bill in Portugal was a legitimate business expense. He justified charging the estate for the heating and cleaning of his six-bedroom home because it was his office and he entertained clients there.

Mr Bezant added that company-paid taxis which took his daughters to and from school in Ashford were agreed by Dr Rausing because both parents were too busy working. He countered claims of irregularities in his returns to the Inland Revenue by saying the tax forms were filled in by the company's auditors. He added: "As the auditors had not told me there was anything wrong with the items which were work-related it did not occur to ask. I am a simple farmer."

The preliminary hearing was adjourned until 20 August when a decision will be made on whether there is an illegality in Mr Bezant's claim and whether the case for unfair dismissal can be heard. If Mr and Mrs Bezant are successful, the full case cannot be heard until April next year at the earliest owing to the backlog of cases.