After several delays in proceedings, the trial of three former Tesco executives kicked off last Friday, with the case - one of the biggest and most high-profile accounting scandals in UK history - expected to last till Christmas.
Carl Rogberg, 50, Chris Bush, 51, and John Scouler, 49, have pleaded not guilty to charges of fraud by abuse of position and false accounting, a “white-collar crime” plot resulting in Tesco overstating its profits by £326m between February and September 2014. Here are highlights of the prosecution case so far.
Tesco employees were “bullied” and coerced into fixing the books in order to hit its profit targets, the court heard.
The prosecution claimed staff in “relatively subordinate positions” had to present false figures under pressure to meet profit targets.
“The defendants in this case are the generals - those who are in positions of trust and who were paid huge compensation packages in order to safeguard the financial health of Tesco,” said Sasha Wass QC for the prosecution.
The court heard former finance chief Rogberg, who was “directly responsible” for authorising the falsified figures, received a remuneration package of more than £1m in 2014.
Former MD Bush, who was in charge of the performance and “integrity” of Tesco at the time, received nearly £3m that year, and former food commercial head Scouler, who allegedly directed those beneath him to falsify income figures, received around £1.5m.
Wass said figures were “window-dressed” to make it look as if targets were being met. She told the jury about the practice of “pulling forward” income from the future to artificially inflate the figures of the present.
Tesco employees repeatedly tried to talk the three former executives out of a desperate chase to hit profit targets, after the process “spiralled out of control”, the jury heard. The prosecution claimed the three defendants were “fully aware” they were damaging the business by “conniving and manipulating” the figures in a scandal that wiped £2bn off the supermarket’s total share value.
By July 2014, Tesco employees had made several attempts to highlight “unrealistic targets”, which were kept in place despite the hole in the accounts “spiralling out of control”. Prosecutor Ms Wass likened the defendants to “hamsters running around a wheel” as they tried to plug the hole in the accounts.
The prosecution began examining detailed evidence from the whistleblower - one of Tesco’s senior accountants, Amit Soni - which revealed he had agonised for weeks before eventually presenting findings of the hole in Tesco’s accounts to the board.
In an email written on 3 September 2014, he told colleagues: “Keep the file with you, the whistle is about to blow.”
“It has consumed my life in the last four to five weeks, collecting information in secret, getting my team to understand what I want and then doing it in a subtle way and only on my desktop,” he added. “Yesterday, after a long time, I slept properly, but the fight starts now. It is a fight I have to have if Tesco is to become better.”
Prosecutor Wass also told the court another two Tesco employees felt so compromised by the pressure to guard the supermarket’s “biggest kept secret” they quit their jobs.
Soni continued his evidence with claims senior managers were so desperate to “cover the gap” in budget targets they ignored staff fears over going to jail. He claimed commercial director George Wright was one of those worried. “In the meeting he said ‘I don’t want to go to jail for this’,” Mr Soni said.
Soni described how pressure to close the budget gap saw his team “fall apart”. “They were all very intelligent people, but it was getting to the point that even they could see the future was not looking any better, it was not going to get better.”