NatWest Three in court battle to win bail

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The NatWest Three, the British bankers extradited to face fraud charges in the US, were in the care of one of Texas's most prominent lawyers last night, electronically tagged and under curfew, but having narrowly avoided prison.

The trio were released into the custody of the flamboyant Daniel Cogdell, after he and other attorneys pleaded that they should not be jailed while a Houston court decides if they can return to the UK.

The Home Office is to be asked next week to give assurances that the three can be effectively monitored if they are allowed home to await the start of their trial. The US government opposed international bail, saying that after more than two years fighting extradition, the men were at risk of absconding from US justice.

David Bermingham, Giles Darby and Gary Mulgrew are accused of pocketing $7.3m (£4m) in a complex fraud involving the collapsed energy company, Enron. Andrew Fastow, Enron's chief financial officer, and another Enron finance department executive, have already pleaded guilty to fraud.

In the low-ceilinged, seventh-floor courtroom in downtown Houston yesterday, the Britons formally entered their first pleas on US soil: not guilty to all seven counts.

They were dressed casually in open-necked shirts and appeared relatively relaxed as they talked with lawyers before their afternoon hearing. The judge, Stephen Smith, decided he needed more information about the trio's prospects for finding work in the US if they were forced to stay, and about the UK Government's processes for electronic tagging and monitoring defendants if they were released into the UK.

Messrs Bermingham and Darby each put up a bond of $100,000 and Mr Mulgrew put up $20,000 as conditions for their interim bail conditions, before a hearing next Friday. All three are then expected to be asked to hand over much larger sums for their permanent bail.

Mr Cogdell, a motorcycle-racing attorney famed for his jokey courtroom manner and his flamboyant personal life, was hired this week to represent Mr Bermingham. In court he said the NatWest Three were "celebrities" in the UK and it was "fanciful" they would be able to flee.

After a high-profile PR campaign in Britain, and assurances from Tony Blair, the men won an undertaking from US prosecutors that they would not oppose conditional bail so long as conditions could be agreed.

And although the three men appeared unshaven in court, it seemed they had endured a less onerous night in the custody of US marshals than many other extradited defendants.

Plans to house them in a detention centre inside Houston were abandoned because of "excessive media attention" and local reports said they had spent the night in a hotel. They did not have to appear in court in the orange or green jump suits that other prisoners wear to bail hearings and were not shackled inside the courtroom.

That was in stark contrast to the defendant in another wire fraud case up before Judge Smith directly before the NatWest Three. He was uncuffed only briefly to fill out forms and ordered back into custody after saying he could not afford a lawyer unless the court appointed one for him.

Mr Mulgrew's lawyer, Reid Figel, said his client had pledges from 50 individuals to support bail of $2.5m. They men also offered to use their houses, savings bonds and $345,000 of shares in Celtic Football Club as collateral.

Representatives of the men insisted that while bail within the US would be welcome, it would still not allow them to work while in the US to support their families. Michael Sommer, the lawyer for Mr Darby, pleaded for him to be allowed to return to look after the family engineering firm in Wiltshire. "That is how he supports his wife, his daughters and himself, and that is how he hopes to support his defence," Mr Sommer said.

Mr Figel said he hoped to show the UK Government would be able to effectively monitor their tagging, so they could be bailed in the UK. " We have a lot of work to do before next Friday," he said.

The trial of the three men was yesterday slated to start on 11 September, but legal experts said it was unlikely that date would have to be moved back to allow for the collection of evidence from witnesses.

In a separate development, the family of Neil Coulbeck, 53, the ex-colleague of the three men at NatWest whose body was found in a London park on Tuesday, paid tribute to his "decency, honesty and integrity".

The discovery of Mr Coulbeck's body close to his £700,000 home in Woodford Green, east London was followed by claims that he had been "hounded" by the FBI, which in turn said that he had been interviewed only once and was not a suspect. He had been expected to be called as a defence witness.