Three former partners of public-relations firm Bell Pottinger could be banned from acting as company directors.
The Insolvency Service is seeking to disqualify the trio – former chief executive James Henderson and former partners Nicholas Lambert and Victoria Geoghegan – after Bell Pottinger was accused of running a racially divisive campaign in South Africa.
Bell Pottinger went bust in September 2017 following two damning reports on the PR firm’s work for Oakbay Capital, a company owned by South Africa’s wealthy Gupta family.
A spokesperson for the Insolvency Service said: “We can confirm that court proceedings were issued. These proceedings are for the disqualification of partners or directors from running or controlling companies. As proceedings have been issued in court, it is not appropriate to comment further.”
People struck off as directors can be barred from running, forming or marketing a company in the UK for as many as 15 years.
Henderson said in a statement: “I intend to contest this application and fight this matter in court in order to preserve my good name safe in the knowledge that for the first time the full facts relating to the failure of Bell Pottinger will emerge.
“I simply would never have embarked upon, condoned or ignored any course of action that would have endangered the firm that I proudly led and loved, nor would I have done anything to stir division in South Africa or elsewhere. When legitimate concerns were raised with me about other accounts, I had no hesitation in resigning them irrespective of their value to the firm.
“It is important to say that I never had any involvement in the workings of the Oakbay account which caused the controversy, nor even any contact with the clients. It is also a fact that I was actively misled when I sought to get to the truth.
“Bell Pottinger did not fail because it was a mismanaged business. Instead it found itself at the centre of a political battle between President Zuma and his opponents, and a carefully orchestrated campaign to destroy the firm involving people who had an axe to grind. The case against me is weak and misconceived and I am confident that the court should ultimately find in my favour.”
Lawyers for Lambert and Geoghegan said in a statement: “Our clients do not accept the current position. They believe it is an abuse of legal process and will pursue appropriate action.”
Bell Pottinger collapsed after reports by law firm Herbert Smith Freehills and PR trade body the Public Relations and Communications Association found that it had run a racially divisive campaign for Oakbay – which was paying the firm £100,000 a month.
The campaign emphasised the power of white-owned businesses and used the #WhiteMonopolyCapital hashtag.
The Gupta family were allies of then-president Jacob Zuma of the ANC and had been accused of “state capture” by the opposition Democratic Alliance.
Companies House filings show Henderson is a director of PR firm J&H Communications which he set up following the demise of Bell Pottinger and whose clients have included property tycoon Robert Tchenguiz.
Lambert and Geoghegan – who both now work for City PR firm Thoburns – were heavily involved in Bell Pottinger’s work for the Gupta family.
Geoghegan was fired by Bell Pottinger in July 2017 and Lambert left in August of the same year after he was suspended.
According to Geoghegan’s profile on Thoburns’ website she has acted for clients including James Dyson and financial-services companies CYBG (now Virgin Money) and Investec.
Bell Pottinger was founded by Lord Tim Bell who died last year. Bell was best known as an adviser to former prime minister Margaret Thatcher on her three successful general-election campaigns.
To contact the author of this story with feedback or news, email James Booth