Framed By The Frogs

CHAPTER 19
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So here we are now, back where I started my story.  And despite how long it’s taken me to tell my tale, Renault's barrister Andrew Bruce of Serle Court Chambers is still going on, though about what I haven't the faintest idea.

 

I’ve just looked at my company's barrister, Laura John, and she has given me a look that says she can't understand him either, so at least it’s not just me, and in fact His Lordship seems to be having some difficulty understanding exactly what it is that Andrew Bruce actually wants, which to my unlearned ear seems to be that he should have his cake and eat it.

 

In other words, although he has pleaded one thing for his client in the original Claim document, it seems to me that if Andrew Bruce doesn’t think that the case is going his way he wants to be able to plead something else at the end of the trial.

Laura is on her feet to raise quite understandable objections.  Fortunately His Lordship reckons that Andrew Bruce should stop and put his revised arguments in writing and let us all see in detail just what he is on about.

 

And so the day continues with other legal submissions and pleadings to set out each side’s store before His Lordship, and this goes on until he has heard quite enough of the pre-combat blustering, bluffing and swaggering and calls a halt to the day’s events.

 

Somehow I’m reminded of the pre-bout weigh-in at a boxing match.  Each side steps up to the scales, posturing and flexing muscles, then the intending combatants are nose to nose.  A few choice words are exchanged to sharpen the ill-feeling and increase the public spectacle.

 

Well, despite the posturing here and now, tomorrow we will reconvene and then the play-fighting will be over and we’ll be down to the real nitty-gritty of the Trial.  Personally, I can’t wait. 

We have a short team huddle and Laura explains that she and Andrew Bruce will to and fro between themselves on amendments to the pre-Trial pleadings so that tomorrow morning His Lordship can see the final result before we get into hand-to-hand combat.  This will allow Laura to frame her objections to whatever it is that Andrew Bruce proposes and to review the Trial strategy if necessary.

 

And so I head home, elated that we have actually begun, but rather confused about just exactly what it is we have begun, as it seems that legal argument will take up a lot more of the Trial than I had expected. 

I need the Judge to be bombarded with evidence, not legal arguments, because it is in the facts that my case is strongest, as the tussles with Andrew Bruce in the Pre-Trial Hearings have shown. 

So tonight is probably going to be the most sleepless night I’ve had since this whole farce began, and believe me, I’ve had a few.

 

OK, Trial Day Two and, for a few brief minutes, I think I have somehow slipped into Bill Murray’s character in the film ‘Groundhog Day’, trapped forever in a cycle of perpetual repetition of the day before.

 

The Clerk of the Court asks for all mobile phones to be turned off, goes to the anteroom, returns with His Lordship, then says ‘All stand’ and we do and we bow and then we all sit down except for Andrew Bruce who once again goes on about his pleadings.

 

Fortunately this time there is a significantly greater degree of understanding amongst the legal brains over whatever it was that Andrew Bruce was promoting yesterday, and so the issue is over and done with before I even have time to consider if a mercy increase to my medication levels might be required.

 

And then, almost by stealth, the real Trial gets underway, as Steve Wilson from Renault steps onto the Witness Stand.  After taking the Oath, confirming his identity and undergoing a light interview with Andrew Bruce, it is time for Steve Wilson to face the real cross-examination as Laura John takes over the questioning.

 

Now, as this will be the beginning of four days of witness cross-examination, and I can’t write fast enough to keep up with every word said, I’m going to have to paraphrase for you the evidence of each witness and focus just on the nitty-gritty, nutty, crunchy, chewy bits of what each one claims or denies (including me), because there will be a lot of claiming and denying to come over the next four days and, judging by the Witness Statements I’ve seen so far from Carolyn Sample, Steve Wilson and Toby Johnstone at Renault, a lot of it will not be very convincing.

 

So, whilst what follows won’t be a verbatim record of what’s said over the next four days, I will try my best to tell the honest gist of each cross-examination without any twisting of words or mangling of meanings. 

But that's not just me playing fair, 
because up above me in the Courtroom there’s a microphone.  Every word that is said in Court will be recorded throughout the entire Trial, which means that I will soon be found out if I do perverse things with the testimony given by each witness.  And I really don’t want to be back in Court defending another legal action.  No thanks.

 

But you aren’t going to read all the Witness Statements and other documents (by now the pile of evidence must be two feet high), so I’ll fill in the gaps in some of the testimony when necessary, especially if what the witness says on the stand is contradicted by the evidence.  And if the witnesses don’t answer questions in order to avoid incriminating themselves, I’ll do it for them. After all, this is my book, not theirs.

 

What that means is, for the next few chapters, my tale will be something of a pot-pourri, comprising the testimony of witnesses and some of the other evidence upon which the Judge will eventually base his decision.  And then you too can decide.

 

But meanwhile, let us return to Steve Wilson, around whom a very elaborate and unfortunate trap seems to be about to close.

 

Now, in his Witness Statements Steve Wilson has consistently pursued the theme that Renault (being whiter than white and never, ever, countenancing the illicit use of its highly discounted corporate client accounts to sell cars to retail customers) had held suspicions for some time about the number of vehicles being sold through the BALPA account and just exactly who was buying them.

 

And Steve has claimed throughout his testimony so far that he and his boss, Carolyn Sample, have repeatedly asked me about just who was actually buying the cars and that I have consistently told them that the cars were sold only to BALPA members.

 

Obtaining a confession from Steve Wilson that this is totally untrue looks remote, particularly as Steve has signed declarations of truth at the end of both of his witness statements.  In the light of this, Laura and I have agreed that her Trial strategy will be to (a) test Steve’s claims against the other evidence and (b) undermine the proposition that Steve and Carolyn Sample didn’t know exactly what was going on all the time anyway.

 

Laura will concentrate on demonstrating that Steve and Carolyn have deliberately posed limited questions to me about the BALPA account knowing that I could answer them quite truthfully.  The reason for this?  So that Steve and Carolyn could then ‘tick the boxes’ over security on the BALPA web site for the benefit of their superiors at Renault, when in fact the issue of web site security is just a façade because, between us all (Renault, Steve Wilson, Carolyn Sample, Toby Johnstone and me), everyone knew just what was really happening with the cars.

 

And Laura will also set out to prove that this charade would allow Steve Wilson and Carolyn Sample to cover up their knowledge of what has happened, reporting back to Renault that the BALPA account was being operated properly, when in fact they both knew perfectly well that this wasn’t the case, even though this didn’t matter anyway, because Renault was continually authorising more and more cars to be sold through the BALPA account and regularly promoting increases to the discounts to keep the car sales Merry-Go-Round turning.

 

And the motive for all of this?

Well, last, but not least, Laura will demonstrate that Renault desperately needed the extra sales made through the BALPA account (irrespective of the true identity of the purchasers) so that it could do something, anything in fact, to make up for the decline in sales of its new cars.

 

My part, thankfully, will be a little less demanding  - I am to ask a few seemingly gentle questions at the end of each cross-examination.

My questions will allow the Judge to pull together any loose threads from the witness testimony but will also minimise the prospect of me totally screwing up the job Laura has already done by the time I stand up and open my mouth.  At least I think Laura put it to me that way round, though maybe her priorities were in the reverse order.  No pressure there then.

 

Whichever way round, I don’t envy Laura her task.  Each of Renault’s witnesses has produced Statements that are, on the face of it, compelling and extremely damaging, some might even think that they were professionally constructed by experts to be so, not least as they are written, by and large, in a form of language that I have never heard any of the witnesses use in conversation.  A bit like watching a policeman give evidence in an Ealing Studios comedy film.

 

“Hi wos proceeding halong the ‘igh street in a northerly direction when hi hobserved the haccusesed’s posterior wot was dangling from han hopen whindow.”  Well, maybe quite not that bad, but you get my meaning.  Contrived. Artificial.  Unreal. Hmmm.

 

But as far as Trial strategy is concerned, Laura John’s approach to the pre-Trial evidence has worked well and, by following her lead even when she wasn’t around for guidance, I have managed to drag out of Renault some important contradictions and unsustainable claims, so I’m sure she knows exactly what she’s doing with the Trial strategy, though perhaps I shouldn’t yet make the same claim for my own Defence.

 

Anyway, back to Steve Wilson, who under gentle (but nevertheless stealthy and persistent) encouragement from Laura John, has just ignored The Spade Rule yet again; he’s picked it up and has started digging his own grave as a witness.

 

You see, before the Trial I gave Laura John briefings on each of the witnesses.  A written point-by-point critique of their evidence, plus a verbal profile of what they might be like under cross examination, what I know of their character and my impressions of their strengths and weaknesses.  And now Laura will take all of that and use it to deconstruct them on the witness stand, one by one.

 

So what did I tell Laura about Steve Wilson?  Well, first of all, his credentials.  Before his job with Renault, Steve Wilson didn’t sell cars.  He was in fact a tyre salesman, and so he was dropped in at the deep end of business-to-business vehicles sales by Renault, dealing not only with very sophisticated vehicle fleet buyers for large corporate customers, but also with some very experienced and wily corporate sales staff in the Renault dealerships on his turf.  Staff who knew just how to work the system to their advantage, as my experiences were to prove.

 

Around the time of ‘The BALPA Affair’ Steve Wilson’s wife was expecting their first child, so I speculated that if she had previously worked for a living, the arrival of ‘junior’ may have meant a loss of household income and therefore extra pressure on Steve to bring home the bacon.  Perhaps this was even the reason for his move to Renault. 

Once in his new job, Steve Wilson would have been keen to impress his new masters, and therefore perhaps he might have been keen to cover up any shortcomings in his performance as well.  All speculation by me, but not entirely unreasonable speculation given those circumstances.

 

And I figured that, as a new boy at Renault, Steve might be malleable, probably the most likely of all the Renault witnesses to follow the corporate mantra set out in his witness statements, where he had claimed that he had asked me repeatedly about who had been buying the cars and that I had told him each time that it was only BALPA members. 

Because of this I reckoned Steve Wilson would probably continue to follow the corporate line on the witness stand, whatever evidence was thrown in to discredit his story.  But that would be to our advantage because, if Steve Wilson stuck to his story when it was blatantly undermined by evidence, he would do our job for us as far as his credibility was concerned.

 

Laura has decided that any cross-examination would focus on evidence versus the sandy foundations of Steve’s Witness Statements.  And Laura hasn’t wasted any time exposing the contradictions. In fact, I have to say, she’s done it rather ruthlessly.  But this isn’t a game and Laura has neither the time (nor, I think, the inclination) to be gentle with him.

 

So, into cross-examination.  When had Renault first become concerned about sales under the BALPA account?  Steve reckons that after my first meeting with him there had been some doubts, but otherwise nothing significant until about two months later.  In which case, why did Steve want a meeting with me just four weeks after that first meeting ‘to challenge me’ as Toby had said?

 

Well, according to Steve Wilson, it was normal Renault practice for area managers to visit customers four or five times a year, so I would have been due another visit shortly anyway.

 

So, at the meeting, according to Steve in his first Witness Statement, I left the room and returned ‘…. with a lever arch file.  He waved this at me and said he kept records of all BALPA registration documents ….’, suggesting that all I did was to show Steve that such a file existed.

 

But in my own first Witness Statement, which Steve Wilson wouldn’t have seen when he wrote his version of events, I explained in detail that not only had I produced the file, but I had actually left Steve alone with the file for quite some time whilst I went off to make tea and biscuits.  So now it was time for Steve to cover his tracks.

 

In Steve Wilson’s second Witness Statement, rushed out somewhat hastily to deny the incriminating things I had said in my first Statement, Steve effectively admitted that his first Statement wasn’t quite everything on this topic.  In the second Witness Statement Steve Wilson said that the file was indeed left with him, but this time Steve stated that whilst I was gone he didn’t take a look inside it.

 

Well Steve, that does seem a little bit odd, to say the least.  You and your bosses are concerned that cars have gone where they shouldn’t have.  Then you’re presented with a file of the very documents which could be used to allay your concerns (if you really had any).


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So Steve, should you (a) peek inside the file and record the details of some of the customers to check up on later, or (b) do nothing (other than maybe stare at the fascinating artwork on the walls of my sitting room)?

 

And on the witness stand Steve Wilson is sticking with (b).  Hmmm. Either Steve did take a peek in the file, and he lied in his second Witness Statement (as well as being rather economical with the truth in his first one), or he was a very silly man to pass up such a golden opportunity, especially as my walls weren’t exactly adorned with Constables or Monets to distract him whilst he waited for me to boil a kettle.

 

But there’s also a more fundamental issue here as well. 

In my first witness statement I explained that Toby Johnstone had tipped me off about Steve Wilson’s visit.  In response to this, in his second Statement, Steve said that ‘I did not have any such conversation with Toby Johnstone.  I had no such knowledge at that time.’  Oh dear me. 

 

You see, the reason why I had ambushed Steve with the file of V5 registration documents was because I spent the evening prior to the meeting fishing the V5s out of the individual customer files where, up until then, they had all been kept.  Only then did I assemble the file that was placed on the table in front of Steve the next day.

 

Until that previous night the file of V5s didn’t actually exist. 

The file only existed because Toby Johnstone tipped me off. 

And Toby couldn’t have done that unless Steve Wilson first had a conversation with him about the BALPA account, a conversation so disconcerting for Toby (perhaps worried about a drop in his bonuses) for him to have called me about it.

 

Steve also claimed that my local Renault dealer, Herds of Isleworth (the one that Steve’s predecessor had recommended that I leap-frog and use Renault Croydon instead), had contacted him ‘to raise a concern about Fleetpro, having seen cars offered for sale on a web site at prices below that at which they would be available for purchase from Renault.’  Now that’s odd.  How would Herds have found out about this? And how would they have known that the cars were supplied by me?

 

Steve Wilson then went on to say ‘When I explained to Herds that FleetPro were managing a closed vehicle purchase scheme for a customer and I had been assured that access to the secure areas of the web site was password restricted (as I had been told repeatedly[my emphasis in bold]), they accepted this and asked whether they could supply cars under the scheme.’

 

Let’s look at this in more detail Steve.  First of all, if the overall context of this is true then the conversation you had with Herds must have happened before you actually introduced me to their sales manager, Peter Genari, at the beginning of October 2005.  But by that time I had only ever met Steve Wilson once, on 28 September 2005.

 

So Steve, how could you by then have ‘been told repeatedly’ by me that access to the BALPA web site was password protected?  Unless in your Witness Statement you were lying?  Oh dear.  Perhaps that’s what Judges call ‘firming up the evidence’?

 

And whilst we’re on the subject of Herds of Isleworth, Steve, perhaps you could explain something else?  When I did eventually meet Peter Genari at Herds, he told me that he would like to use the discounts available through the BALPA account to sell some cars for Herds because another account that he had used in the past for just such activity had been closed down by Renault at the end of September 2005.

 

Now Steve Wilson said in his second witness statement that he had looked into this allegation by me and no such account closure happened.  His words were ‘I do not understand the explanation provided by Mr Thoms for the purchases made through Herds on the BALPA FON [FON stands for ‘Fleet Operator Number’, the Renault term for a customer account].  This appears to be that Herds were unable to use the MBS FON [the FON used generally by Renault for small-medium sized businesses] at that time.  I have made enquiries but can find no record of either of the two MBS FONS being shut down in/around September 2005, nor do I believe that they would have been.’

 

So, that's pretty damning then Steve, you've really got me there.

 

Except for just one thing Steve, an item that I didn’t get around to submitting in evidence to the Trial. An e-mail that I still have from Peter Genari.  It says:

 

‘On another matter we have the possibility of pushing a Megane Coupe Cabriolet your way, customer enquired in September and has firmed up the order, is a business client and auto accept on finance, however the particular FON expired on the 30th [September 2005]. What do you get in FON support before dealer terms on this model i.e. % + FOC metallic? [Peter is asking about the percentage discount and whether metallic paint is free] and what would you want in way of "commission". I also see possibility of a limited number of this type of order for cars in particular when we are up against the wall so to speak!.’

 

Now Steve, there’s always the possibility that Peter Genari was lying to me about this, but why would he, as he obviously wanted to get access to the discounts available under the BALPA account?

 

So Steve, either you were lying again in your evidence, or maybe in your response you deliberately referred only to the ‘MBS’ FONs to avoid mentioning the possibility of it being another FON that was closed on 30  September?  In fact, the one that Peter Genari had actually been using until the end of September 2005 and to which he was referring to in his e-mail?

 

And finally Steve, just read again the last sentence of the quote from Peter’s e-mail. Here was a Renault dealer asking for access to the discounts available under the BALPA account in return for a commission, yet Peter Genari was so unconcerned about the possible repercussions from Renault of doing this that he was prepared to put the request in writing to me. 

So Steve, just how widespread does this kind of corruption have to be in the Renault dealer network before it reaches such a level of disdain for the potential repercussions if it were ever to be found out?

 

But let’s move on with your evidence Steve.

 

Now reader, you will have to bear with me for a little while on this one.  In the summer of 2005 I sold a broker a Renault Megane Scenic using the BALPA account.  In the autumn the broker’s customer came back and complained about the car.  It was fitted with Renault’s new ‘state-of-the-art’ 1.9dci diesel engine.  Now this engine should have been more powerful and emitted less pollution than its predecessor.

 

I’m sure that was true when it worked, but this diesel engine wasn’t suited to driving around town.  Yes, I know the contradiction in that.  Diesel engines, towns.  They go together like bread and jam (well, maybe not).

 

Unfortunately, this particular diesel engine had a drawback – if it was used mainly for repeated short town journeys then the fancy self-cleaning system fitted to the engine exhaust to reduce emissions could get clogged up with all the pollutants it was supposed to clean out.  These pollutants could then choke the engine until first it spluttered, then stalled and, finally, refused to start, possibly leaving the owner stranded. 

Now Renault, in its wisdom, fitted this engine to people carriers, you know, the type of cars that mums and dads use on short town journeys every day to deliver their children to school and pick them up again. Oops.

 

And if the car was used mainly for short town journeys then the only way to prevent the engine problem happening was for the owner to take the car for a long journey every couple of weeks, which gave the clever self-cleaning system time to get its act together and burn off the pollutants that could otherwise choke the engine into submission.

 

So picture this.  You buy a car because it is more advanced, more powerful and more economical than its predecessor.  Then you have to waste fuel driving it on a long journey every few weeks to stop it conking out.

 

Or perhaps you ignore the long journeys and one day, when the car stutters as you pull away at a busy roundabout, you’re flattened, along with your precious cargo, by an approaching juggernaut. 

Now I don’t have any specific examples of the latter to quote, but I do have one very expensive example of what did actually go wrong with one of the damned things.

 

And here’s where the relevance to the Trial comes in.  The customer for the Renault Megane Scenic I mentioned had simply had enough.  Their local Renault dealer in Wolverhampton (also owned by Renault) hadn’t been able to fix the problem and had apparently told the customer that if they had supplied the car they would have replaced it free of charge. 

Now a replacement would have been fair enough in the circumstances.  But a replacement would actually have just resulted in a repeat of exactly what was going on already.  Choke, splutter, die, as the driver would have still driven it around town all day.

 

Fortunately the customer was persuaded to have a demonstration of another version of the same car but with a different, older engine, one quite happy with everyday town use, as opposed to the supposedly more advanced new engine.  And so to get a demonstration car to the customer I needed it to be delivered to them.  Just one thing.  The customer was a steel fabrication company in the Midlands .

 

So what did I do?  I sent the name and address of the steel fabrication company to Toby Johnstone, who sent it on to Steve Wilson, who authorised the demonstrator and, low and behold, Renault delivered the demonstrator to the steel fabrication company, left it on loan for two weeks and then picked it up again.

 

Now, if this was meant to be a car sold to a BALPA member, well I have to say I don’t know how many airline pilots work for steel fabrication companies in the Midlands .  My guess is that the numbers are quite low.  In fact my guess is zero.  Which is probably why Steve Wilson found it hard to explain away all of this on the witness stand.  Why did he authorise a demonstrator for a steel fabrication company when the original car was supposed to have been supplied to an airline pilot?

 

But here’s the rub as far as I was concerned. 

The customer accepted the idea of a swap, but Renault Croydon weren’t too happy about taking the original, defective, car back from him. 

In fact Renault Croydon dragged out the whole debacle as long as they could and eventually declined to exchange the defective one for a new car.  Instead they told me that they would only offer the customer a trade-in value for the original car against the new one based upon whatever the original car was worth by the time a replacement was delivered.  And this despite the original car having a known fault and not being fit for purpose in the first place.

 

Well, I couldn’t have that.  I had sold the car in good faith.  So to make up the difference between the trade-in value and the cost of a replacement car, I paid up instead.  I might have been ripped off by bloody Renault Croydon, but at least the customer wasn’t, though it would have been totally different if I hadn’t intervened and paid the difference. 

 

You see, having some grey face from a global corporation lie in Court about me allegedly cheating on car purchases is one thing,  having a real life customer think that I cheated them on a car sale is something else. 

So out of my own pocket I stumped up the four thousand pounds difference between the original car’s trade-in value and what was necessary to buy the replacement for the customer.  And bear in mind that this was dragged out so long that the final vehicle swap happened after Renault had pretty much closed down my business, so it meant that the money really did come from my own pocket.

 

But here’s the cheeky bit of revenge.  Instead of buying the replacement car from Renault Croydon, I bought it from another broker and that broker used someone else’s highly discounted corporate account to do the deal for me.  The delicious irony of putting one over on Renault like that still makes me chuckle, even if it was probably my most expensive laugh ever.

 

And so the testimony of Steve Wilson continues, with Laura John laying traps and Steve walking into them.  Now he’s being challenged about the phenomenal drop in sales volume at Renault during the reign of the BALPA account.

 

Steve’s just tried to avoid answering the question truthfully by saying that the Corporate Sales Department has met its targets.  But Laura John hasn’t let up and now he’s admitted that as far as Renault was concerned this was ‘not our best year of sales’ and added that ‘perhaps retail sales didn’t make targets’. 

Now that is an understatement, Steve.  Renault sales were down by 32% at one point during that year.  Renault had lost virtually a third of its sales in just 12 months.  Can you imagine just how desperate that would make Renault to sell cars?

 

And finally, Steve Wilson has maintained all along that he had asked me repeatedly about who was buying the cars sold under the BALPA account.  But whilst Steve has recorded his visits to me in typed notes of each meeting, not one of the notes contains any record of such questioning, this despite other far less important issues being recorded. 

Now, if you were so concerned about this point that you allegedly asked about it at every meeting Steve, how come you didn’t bother to record this fundamental question and my alleged response in any of the meeting notes?

 

So, with enough contradictions in his evidence now drawn out of Steve Wilson, Laura has finished her questioning, and it’s my turn with a rather relieved looking witness.  But I really only want to know one thing.  It’s a test of how far you are prepared to go under oath on the Witness Stand, Steve.

 

So, Steve, what did you ask me about the BALPA account when we met?  His response - he asked about the web site security.  There was a momentary pause, and then, seemingly as an emergency after-thought, Steve says that he also asked about who was buying the cars.  Too late, Steve.  Although it was only a moment’s delay, anyone and everyone in the Courtroom noticed it, and the Court tape recording surely clocked it as well.

 

Job done.  Which means it is now Carolyn Sample’s turn on the witness stand.  And this is going to be interesting, to say the least.


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