Hans Rausing, Britain's richest man, fired his marketing director and managing director for fiddling thousands of pounds in expenses, and submitting unlawful tax returns during their 22 years of employment, a tribunal was told yesterday.
Dr Lanny Bezant and her husband, Richard, claim they were unfairly dismissed by the creator of the Tetra Pak milk carton, who has a £4bn fortune.
Mrs Bezant, a doctor of philosophy, worked as marketing director on Professor Rausing's 800-acre East Sussex estate, Wadhurst Park Estate Ltd, and her husband was considered the inventor's "right-hand man".
They are suing Professor Rausing for unfair dismissal after he sacked them with immediate effect last September, and told them their home, a 16th-century cottage, was to be sold within two days.
Dr Bezant told the tribunal in Ashford, Kent, that she believed the company's accountants had taken care of tax matters. "I'm not telling a lie here," she said. "I had no interest or knowledge of tax or accountancy ... I had no idea that tax was payable on benefits in kind. I left everything to the accountants."
At an earlier hearing Simon Devonshire, representing Wadhurst Park, said Mr Bezant had paid with company cash for many of his items and services. These included horses for his teenage daughters, a bill for Le Meridien hotel in Portugal, flights to Berlin, heating and cleaning bills totalling £12,000 over three years for his farmhouse, taxi trips to pick up Mr Bezant's daughters from school in Ashford, a pair of jeans, a ski jacket and food for his pets.
All the items, Mr Bezant said, could be legitimately accounted for. The horses, he said, were given to the farm by an animal charity with Professor Rausing's blessing.
He had paid for the trip to Berlin and was on business when he stayed in the hotel, Mr Bezant said. Then, the Portuguese side of the business should have paid the bill. And even the clothes were for wearing on the farm.
Dr Bezant was asked about her salary to run the speciality food side jumping from £10,000 to almost £30,000 in seven years. She said she had not been sure how much she earned. "I wasn't interested or aware of how much I was earning. I'm not a mercenary, money-grabbing type of person."
Tom John, representing the couple, said the allegations of fraud and misappropriation, and the resulting breach of trust, were among the most serious in employment law.
"They both genuinely believe accountants were employed to deal with the issues of tax," he said. But Mr Devonshire said Mr Bezant and his wife knew they were defrauding the Inland Revenue by not declaring their perks.
If the tribunal goes ahead after yesterday's preliminary hearing, the full case cannot be heard until April next year at the earliest, owing to the backlog of cases.