Former boss of ICA Ltd Andrew Wills has been cleared of a fraud charge relating to Rural Development Grant applications submitted in 2016.
The jury of seven women and five men returned a “not guilty” verdict following a trial that hinged on whether or not Wills knew about fraudulent applications made for grants available under the Countryside Productivity Scheme.
His co-defendant Robin Turney, who acted as agent for the farmers and growers and submitted the applications on their behalf, was found guilty on one of two counts and will be sentenced at a later date.
Turney, of Pools Barn Farm, Little Alne, Henley-in-Arden, and Wills, of 3, Church Yard Cottage, Barden Road, Speldhurst, faced one count of supplying articles for use in fraud between 23 March and 28 July 2016 and a second of knowingly or recklessly furnishing information that is false or misleading.
Turney was cleared of the first count but convicted on the second. Wills was cleared of one count of being in possession of articles for use in fraud.
ICA employee Simon Francis Fitch, of 70, Old Hadlow Road, Tonbridge, had earlier pleaded guilty to his part in the fraud and gave evidence on behalf of the prosecution in which he claimed Wills had been aware of what was going on.
Wills, though, maintained throughout the case that his workload at the head of numerous businesses meant he had no time to focus on the detail of grant applications put together by Fitch and forwarded by Turney, and he denied any knowledge of what Fitch, his brother-in-law, had been doing.
James Thacker, prosecuting on behalf of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), said the case involved applications to the Rural Payments Agency for “substantial and significant grants”.
He told the jury that to ensure value for money for the taxpayer, applicants had to submit three competitive quotations, with the grant – designed to improve productivity, create jobs and promote growth – based on the lowest price submitted.
In this case, Mr Thacker said, Fitch had not only produced the ICA quotation but had also created and submitted quotations from two other contractors on each occasion. “As they were controlling all three quotes, they were always the cheapest and they always won,” he pointed out.
Although the jury heard Wills had seen emails from Fitch relating to the fraudulent activity and had forwarded some to colleagues, he told the court that he did not have time to read emails copied to him but had simply filed or deleted them.
The prosecution said Turney, who acted for the farmer or grower in seven out of nine projects investigated, “had knowledge of and encouraged the false claims”.
Turney told the court that as the agent for the farmers, he had to collate a large amount of information, including tax returns for the previous three years, three competitive quotes, planning documents, the project manager’s CV and details of any awards the grower had received that might support the application.
He forwarded information provided by the client and followed the guidance set out by the Rural Payment Agency, he said. Turney admitted that some of the paperwork now looked fraudulent “with the perfect use of hindsight”, but said that at the time he had believed it to be genuine.
“Looking at it today there are clearly things that don’t tie up,” he admitted.
Questioned by his barrister, Adrian Maxwell, Turney said the RPA guidance set out “the rules by which applicants must submit their tenders,” adding: “I believe that my clients followed that accurately and to the letter.” When Mr Maxwell asked: “Did you follow it?” Turney replied: “Yes.”
Christopher Daw QC, representing Wills (48), pointed out that his client was involved in a large number of other businesses and not just ICA, and added that in 2016 ICA itself had 100 employees across various divisions.
He said Fitch was on a salary of £60,000 and was “a trusted and senior member of staff” who spent his working day visiting farms to put together technical specifications for projects.
Describing Fitch as a “self-confessed fraudster”, he said Wills had not given permission for him to produce fraudulent quotations, despite Fitch’s claims that he had been following his brother-in-law’s instructions. Mr Daw said Wills had “trusted Mr Fitch to do his job”.
Questioned later by Mr Thacker, Fitch said he had created the quotations to help the growers who needed the stores and to improve the cashflow for his brother-in-law’s company. He said there had been no benefit or bonus in it for him.
The jury heard that ICA’s offices in Paddock Wood were raided in October 2016 after an investigation was launched by the Rural Payments Agency and led by Defra’s Sue Toddington.
Investigators seized a batch of blank letterheads for Ian Overy Ltd, as well as emails and other documents, but the jury was told none of the forged documents was found in Wills’ office.
The jury was told about one email from Fitch to Turney that was copied to Wills’ PA Victoria Wise and headed “grant paperwork” and which had three tenders attached, one from ICA and two from other companies. On another occasion an email from Turney’s office asked Fitch to revise the documentation to add VAT numbers to all the quotations, including the two from other contractors.
On another occasion, the court heard, one local grower asked Turney’s office if they had to have three quotations or could submit two. The emailed reply from the agent said he assumed the grower was “using ICA” for his quotations, adding: “For other clients they have provided two other quotes”.
A later email to that grower, copied to Wills and headed “client paperwork”, included quotes purporting to be from two other contractors but described as “cover price one” and “cover price two”. The email asked the grower to forward the documents to Turney. Although Mr Thacker said Wills had later forwarded the email to a colleague, Wills said he had not read it.
Questioned by his barrister, Wills outlined his day at the helm of a number of different companies and said his main focus was on an automotive business he was running at that time and on a company that packed rations for the British Army and was very time consuming.
He said he received around 150 emails a day and filed or deleted any he was only copied in to. Asked by Mr Daw what impact reading every email he was copied in to would have had on his working day, he replied: “I would have been on about my tenth marriage by now”.
Wills said his only interest in the tendering process was to make sure that the “bottom line” of any quotation submitted on behalf of ICA allowed for the right profit margin. He said he only checked the project heading and looked at “the cost price and the selling price” related to his own company.
Asked about a claim by Fitch that he reviewed the whole pack of information before it was forwarded to Turney, Wills replied: “Absolute rubbish”. Mr Daw asked: “How much time would it have taken to engage in the level of scrutiny that Mr Fitch says you did?” Wills replied: “Hours and hours.”
Fitch admitted that in all nine cases under investigation he had created the additional two quotations as well as the tender from ICA. He claimed he and Wills “would have discussed the project in full and run through the schedules and I would then produce the paperwork. He would have approved everything.”
Asked later if he was aware that some of the documents were fraudulent, Wills replied: “No, because I didn’t read them.”
Asked why he had created the false documentation, Fitch said building controlled atmosphere stores was a specialist job and that there was a limited number of contractors that could do the work. Some wouldn’t work with ICA or the growers for a variety of reasons, which made it difficult to get quotations, he said.
Under cross-examination, he explained: “There was a problem with the industry and the number of contractors to do jobs. Lots of people in the area knew there was no point quoting because they would not get the job.”
Referring to an incident in which he had sent an email from the offices of Panel Tech Electrical pretending to be from that company in response to queries raised by Defra investigator Sue Toddington, Fitch claimed Wills had instructed him to send the email claiming everything was in order “because he was too busy”.
Wills told the jury that he knew nothing of the fraud until “the last hour of the Defra raid” and said he had felt “shock, surprise and a bit of sadness” when he first heard of Fitch’s claim that it had been done under his direction.
South East Farmer has been asked to clarify one aspect of our earlier report on this trial. While Torran Construction was named during the proceedings as having been central to the initial investigation, the company has asked us to point out that it did not initiate the investigation but co-operated with the enquiry when contacted by Defra. We are happy to make that clear.
Please note this story has been amended from an earlier version in which Wills was wrongly said to have been charged on three counts. We regret this error and are happy to set the record straight and confirm that he was charged only with the one, lesser, offence.