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Friday, 21 December, 2001, 11:53 GMT
Guinness Four fail in fight for acquittal
Guinness Four graphic
The Guinness Four (from left): Ernest Saunders, Gerald Ronson, Jack Lyons, Anthony Parnes
By BBC News Online's Mike Verdin

They were convicted in what was dubbed the trial of the 20th century.

But the Guinness Four have failed to win acquittal in what could have been the legal appeal of the 21st.

While the famous black beverage itself may promise rewards to those who wait, Jack Lyons, Anthony Parnes, Gerald Ronson and Ernest Saunders have failed to clear their names after 15 years of legal battles in the UK and on the Continent.

Convictions - achieved thanks to an insider trader who inspired a Hollywood blockbuster, as well as a man once tipped as a Conservative Party leader - have withstood challenges based in part on the evidence of a supergrass who helped sink a 132m drug ring.

Landmark takeover

Friday's decision will come as a particular disappointment to Mr Lyons whose campaigning to "lift a cloud of injustice" prompted the latest hearings.

The Guinness Four
Ernest Saunders: Former Guinness chief executive. Jailed for 5 years, halved on appeal, for false accounting, conspiracy, and theft.
Jack Lyons: Consultant. Fined 3m for theft and false accounting. Stripped of knighthood
Anthony Parnes: Trader. Jailed for 30 months, reduced on appeal to 21 months, for false accounting and theft.
Gerald Ronson: Businessman. Jailed for a year, and fined 5m, for false accounting and theft.

He was in 1986, when asked to advise Guinness on an ambitious takeover proposal, Sir Jack Lyons, a management consultant renowned for his philanthropy, whose acquaintances included former prime minister Sir Edward Heath.

Guinness, with Mr Saunders as chief executive, had hatched plans to buy Distillers, a larger drinks firm which owned whisky brands including Dewars and Johnnie Walker.

The move would consolidate Guinness's transformation, under Mr Saunders' leadership, from a stout brewer into a drinks business of international standing.

And he earned widespread plaudits for pulling off the 2.6bn deal, trumping a bid from foods group Argyll.

'Greed is good'

But, having been the toast of the City, Mr Saunders was within months being grilled by official inspectors.

Guinness affair - timeline
1986, Apr: Guinness takes over Distillers
1986, Dec: DTI investigates share price rigging
1987: Messrs Ronson, Lyons and Saunders charged.
1988: Mr Parnes charged
1990: All four convicted over illegal support for Guinness shares
1991: Mr Parnes' jail sentence reduced on appeal
1995: Mr Lyons' conviction for conspiracy quashed
1996: Mr Saunders wins ECHR case
2000: Messrs Parnes, Lyons, Ronson win ECHR unfair trial ruling
2001: Cases of all four referred back to Court of Appeal

His downfall was prompted by the arrest for insider dealing of Ivan Boesky, the US arbitrageur who coined the phrase "greed is good", echoed in the film Wall Street.

In a plea bargain, Mr Boesky told US authorities of a share dealing arrangement organised to underpin Guinness's stock price when it was pursuing Distillers, boosting the attractiveness of the bid.

In December 1986, the UK Department of Trade and Industry opened investigations into the takeover, and a month later charged Ernest Saunders with an array of financial offences.

Mr Lyons was charged in October 1997, as a DTI inquiry overseen by promising Conservative minister Michael Howard dug deeper into the mechanics of the deal.

Gerald Ronson, the Heron boss credited with bringing self-service petrol stations to Britain, was charged days later, with the last of the Guinness Four - stock trader Anthony Parnes - charged the following March.

Trial of the century

By 1990, fraud investigators had amassed sufficient evidence to bring all four to court.

Jack Lyons in August 1990
Jack Lyons at the time of the Guinness trial

The DTI said that Mr Saunders, while not the author of the share support operation, had been fully aware of its progress.

He had agreed that Guinness should pay Mr Parnes, known as "The Animal" in the City, 3.35m for intelligence gathering and share support activities, the court heard.

Companies in Mr Ronson's Heron group were to receive a 5m "success fee" for their support, should the deal come off, the DTI found.

And Mr Lyons received a 3m payment, despite not undertaking "a tithe of the work done by Mr Parnes, proper or improper", investigators claimed.

Further controversy

The ending of the six-month Crown Court trial, however, marked only the beginning of a series of further ructions surrounding the case.

Ernest Saunders in 1996
Ernest Saunders: resumed business career after jail

Mr Saunders had his five-year sentence halved on appeal, and was released from prison after only 10 months when a medical report said he was suffering from the irreversible brain disease Alzheimer's.

Mr Saunders was unable to recall three numbers backwards, or to remember the name of the US president, a psychiatrist said.

Since his release, Mr Saunders has worked as a marketing consultant for the likes of Carphone Warehouse, and is said to consider the Alzheimer's diagnosis an error.

Landmark ruling

Mr Saunders was also, with the rest of the Guinness Four, able to continue a campaign for full acquittal.

While the four suffered rejection in an appeal bought on the basis of evidence relating to City takeover guidelines, Mr Lyons had a conspiracy for conviction quashed in 1995.

And a year later came the landmark ruling which paved the way for the latest appeal.

It was based not on questions of guilt or innocence, but on the way the information presented to the Crown Court had been obtained.

Human rights

For the DTI investigators had, backed by UK law, forced the four men to answer questions under threat of a fine, or two-year jail sentence, if they failed to respond.

European Court of Human Rights, Strasbourg
European Court of Human Rights: gave key verdict

Yet international human rights guidelines, enshrined into UK law last year in the Human Rights Act, guarantee the accuseds' right to silence should they fear incriminating themselves by talking.

Mr Saunders' conviction was in 1996 ruled "unsafe" by the European Court of Human Rights, which last year issued the same verdict in cases bought by the rest of the Guinness Four.

Further pressure from Mr Lyons saw the convictions of all four men referred to the UK Court of Appeals for this month's hearings.

Supergrass

But while the four said the Human Right Act should apply retrospectively, appeal court judges on Friday cited a precedent rendering the point unarguable.

In any case, "there was and is substantial evidence against the appellants, quite apart from their compelled answers", Lord Justice Rose said.

The judges also rejected claims that the jury in the original trial may have been "nobbled", despite evidence from police informer Michael Michael, who helped earlier this month in the jailing of 34 people.

Relief

So the Four who masterminded a remarkable takeover have proved less successful in achieving a legal coup.

Not that financial regulators will mourn Friday's ruling.

A decision in favour of the Four would have meant that after the two most significant UK fraud investigations of recent years - the Maxwell and Guinness affairs - not a single conviction would have stood.

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