Any effort by the lawyers of former BHS owner Dominic Chappell to “muddy the water” with “irrelevant information” would be a “cynical attempt to re-write history”, the appeal against his pensions convictions has heard.
The 51-year-old ex-racing driver was ordered to pay more than £87,000, including a £50,000 fine, after being found guilty in January of failing to provide information to The Pensions Regulator (TPR) about the firm’s pensions schemes when it collapsed with the loss of thousands of jobs.
Opening TPR’s case at an appeal hearing at Hove Crown Court on Monday, barrister Alex Stein said he was keen the proceedings were not “hijacked” by attempts to enter into evidence information which was “irrelevant” to the charges in question.
He added: “An attempt to muddy the water and draw in irrelevant material are nothing more than a cynical attempt to re-write history.”
The director of company Retail Acquisitions bought British Home Stores for £1 from billionaire Sir Philip Green in March 2015.
BHS went into administration in April 2016, leaving a £571 million pension deficit.
Sir Philip later agreed to pay £363 million towards this.
TPR investigated after the sale over concerns about two pension schemes representing 19,000 members of staff.
Mr Stein said the “crux” of the prosecution’s case was that Chappell “failed to response” to three statutory notices demanding information.
Chappell was issued with two notices, known as section 72s under the Pensions Act 2004, in March and April 2016 before being handed a warning notice in November that year.
The self-described entrepreneur who lives near Blandford Forum in Dorset, claimed he did “everything and more” to help the regulator.
But he was prosecuted and found guilty of three charges after a four-day trial.
Mr Stein said: “Despite the appellant (Chappell) confirming he received the final section 72 notice, there has never been any response to it whatsoever.”
Michael Levy, defending, told the court Chappell “believed” the notices had been responded to and previously argued the task was impossible to complete in the time frame given.
Mr Levy accused TPR of refusing to admit the “size of the task” handed to Chappell.
He said prosecuting bodies should behave in a reasonable and appropriate manner or it would make a “mockery of the law”, adding: “I just need the court to understand this does not take two minutes to do. These are massive tasks.”
He repeated claims it was “extraordinary” the name of the TPR staff member who made the decisions about how much time Chappell was given to respond has been withheld and asked why there was “secrecy”.
Mr Stein said this was “another cynical attempt to try and derail what is a very simple and straight- forward prosecution”.
Judge Christine Henson QC, overseeing the hearing, said the name was “irrelevant”.
Mr Stein said it was important Chappell provided a “reasonable excuse” for failing to comply, adding: “There have been promises of witnesses and evidence to support his case” but none had materialised.
Chappell said he was ill and had been travelling abroad during the period in question, claiming this prevented him assisting investigators.
But no medical evidence or travel logs had so far been provided, Mr Stein added.
He also told the court there was no evidence of Chappell being unable to access paperwork after claiming he was locked out of BHS offices when liquidators moved in.
During cross examination Mr Levy asked senior case manager Claire Boorman whether the TPR sought to establish if Chappell’s claim about being locked out of BHS was true.
She replied: “No we did not find out because what we were interested in was what Mr Chappell could provide us in response to the notice.”
She told how he was sent letters asking to confirm what documents he could provide and what he was unable to offer and why.
Deadline extensions were provided on a case-by-case basis but “provided there was sufficient reason and rationale” they were “routinely” granted, she said, adding: “We are happy to accept [documents] in batches if it cannot all be provided by a certain date.”
Chappell, dressed in a grey suit and white shirt with a yellow tie, sat at the back of the court following the evidence.
His defence team previously said three witnesses would be called to attest to his version of events in court, including his solicitor Adrian Ring who was present at the trial.
This prompted claims Mr Ring could have a conflict of interest in being called as a witness.
On Monday, Mr Levy told Judge Henson, who is sitting with two magistrates, no defence witnesses would be called during the proceedings. It is thought Chappell will be called to give evidence.
It is still unclear whether Chappell will be called to give evidence.
The appeal continues on Tuesday and could last until Friday.