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Fate of Claridge's lies in deleted texts and harsher words

'THE best analogy I can give you would be the captain of an aircraft and David and Frederick are two passengers in the back. I am captaining the aircraft, so it is my decision, everything is my decision."

So said Philip Peters when asked by counsel for Paddy McKillen last Monday to explain just what it is that he does for Sir David and Sir Frederick Barclay as one of their most trusted executives.

Pressed by Queen's Counsel Richard Hill to concede that he would never do anything that the billionaire brothers did not want done, Mr Peters persisted with his bizarre aeronautical theme.

"If we have taken off from Liverpool and agreed that we are going to Southampton, and halfway Southampton gets closed because of fog, or whatever, then I, as the captain of the aircraft, decide to divert to Bournemouth. That is the best analogy, my Lord, that I can give you for how the operation works," Mr Peters said.

As the battle between Mr McKillen and the Barclays for ownership of Claridge's and the Berkeley and Connaught hotels -- the three most precious jewels in the crown of the Maybourne Hotel Group (MHG) -- continues, the case and indeed the evidence just gets curiouser and curiouser.

In taking the matter to the Royal Courts of Justice, Mr McKillen is seeking to have the sale by Nama of €790m worth of loans associated with the famous London hotels to the billionaire Barclay twins overturned. Central to the media-averse Irishman's bid is his assertion that the Barclays "prejudiced his rights as a director and a shareholder" in MHG when they purchased the debt of Coroin, the company that owns the hotels, last September.

And while Philip Peters isn't in reality the Barclay brothers' pilot, the faith they showed in his banking knowledge certainly allowed him all the latitude he required as he sought to chart a course to secure the three most precious jewels in the Maybourne Hotel Group for them.

Indeed, almost from the off in his involvement in negotiations with Nama, Mr Peters appears to have been anxious to impress upon the State's so-called 'bad bank' just how keen he was to get the hotels for the Barclays through a direct purchase of the hotels' debt or through a refinancing of the company if the agency sold it on to another interest.

"Nama is not the quickest organisation and I was getting frustrated they were not giving us a quick enough answer," Mr Peters told the court last Monday, explaining his early decision to send a series of aggressive emails to the agency's executives.

And if those emails weren't going to be sufficient to inject a little urgency, it appears Mr Peters was quite prepared to take his gloves off and engage in a spot of bare-knuckle boxing with Nama, judging by another email he sent to Sir David Barclay's son, Aidan.

"AB, I think it is in the public interest to know what Nama executives are paid. They are personally incentivised with the potential to earn millions in bonuses. It is time to increase the temperature of the water," he wrote.

But however hot things became for Nama in their dealings with the Barclays and their representatives, the heat was certainly turned up on Mr Peters last Tuesday when he was taken to task over the loss of texts from his mobile phone which counsel for Mr McKillen claimed "would have been invaluable" in the case.

When it was put to him

that there had been an "effort" on his part not to retain the texts once the legal process of discovery had begun, Mr Peters denied the allegation bluntly, saying: "That is absolutely incorrect."

Not that Philip Peters was the only Barclays man in hot water last week in relation to his mobile phone and the text messages he may or may not have sent from it.

Examined on the contents of his witness statement by his own Queen's Counsel Joe Smouha, Michael Seal explained the absence of text messages from his own mobile phone, claiming that he "very rarely" or hardly used it for business at all.

Cross-examined subsequently on the matter by counsel for Mr McKillen, Mr Seal went further, saying: "I have a habit of clearing my phone of all texts instantaneously within the hour, same day, as a matter of course. Again, nothing to do with this litigation. It is how I operate my business life, both with regard to my mobile phone and my emails."

Notwithstanding Mr Seal's obvious discretion in relation to his business communications, some of the texts and emails sent to him by his fellow Barclays executive Richard Faber were telling. That the court got to hear the details of Mr Faber's communications at all was fortuitous in itself, given how he had allowed data on his laptop and mobile to be deleted even after he had been told to maintain this information as part of the case.

Asked about this in court two weeks ago, Mr Faber denied he was trying to conceal documentation, saying that he had traded in his phone because it was broken, while his laptop had no relevant material on it.

Regardless of this loss of potentially valuable information, the few texts and emails recovered from Mr Faber were still revealing.

In one text, Mr Faber offers Mr Seal his view on where relations between the Barclays' interests and Paddy McKillen were heading shortly after his arrival on the board of Coroin, saying: "Of course, I met Paddy today and Liam [Cunningham]. They were in town. We are rapidly heading for a fall-out with them."

Later email exchanges between Messrs Faber and Seal show just how rapidly relations with Mr McKillen deteriorated as the Barclays' representatives sought to assert their position on the board of Coroin and secure ownership of the Maybourne hotels for Sir David and Sir Frederick.

Referring to the course of action he believed would need to be taken if a "deal" could not be done with Mr McKillen, Mr Faber emailed Mr Seal to say "[If] Paddy does not agree to a deal with us this week, therefore we will continue to live in a worsening board environment where decisions will be driven by board votes. In this case, it will be good to have two Ellerman board members, even though it does not improve our voting capacity, which will continue to hinge on the fact that we can ask Derek [Quinlan] to support us (if he is so minded and until he goes bankrupt). But it does create an unpleasant environment for Paddy to have to participate in from a sheer numbers perspective, and we should be doing all we can to make him uncomfortable."

Those efforts to make the Belfast businessman uncomfortable continued in London's High Court last week with Mr Seal and yet another of the Barclays' most trusted lieutenants, Rigel Mowatt, claiming separately that Mr McKillen's legal challenge to the Barclays' purchase of the Maybourne hotel group's €790m debt from Nama was putting the future of the company at risk.

Referring to this in his evidence, Mr Mowatt said: "It would be very difficult to refinance the company with the shareholders not in agreement."

Mr Seal, for his part, said Coroin's debt position "remained unsatisfactory", as long as the dispute between the shareholders continued.

But however assured Messrs Mowatt and Seal were of their position, it emerged in the course of cross-examination that Mr McKillen had attracted a "good lead" on an offer to refinance the company's debt from Deutsche Bank.

The case continues on April 19 once the High Court returns from its Easter recess.

Sunday Independent