Tesco faces huge fine as SFO nears profits scandal plea deal

Tesco is in advanced talks about a deal with prosecutors that would involve it paying a huge fine over the 2014 financial reporting scandal that saw it exaggerate its profits by more than £300m.

Sky News has learnt that lawyers acting for Britain's biggest retailer are closing in on a deferred prosecution agreement (DPA) following months of discussions with the Serious Fraud Office (SFO).

Sources said that a deal could be struck within weeks, although they added that there was no certainty that a final agreement would be reached.

A DPA - which remains a relative rarity in the UK - would involve Tesco Stores Ltd, the supermarket giant's British subsidiary pleading guilty to offences likely to relate to the way it accounted for profits in the period leading to the scandal's exposure.

The precise size of the financial penalty that Tesco would pay was unclear on Saturday, but one legal source said that the number currently under discussion was "well in excess" of £100m.

They added that talks between the two sides had "accelerated" in recent weeks.

Three former Tesco executives were charged last autumn with offences including false accounting and fraud by abuse of position, and are due to stand trial next year.

The trio are Chris Bush, the company's former UK boss; Carl Rogberg, the ex-UK finance director; and John Scouler, former UK commercial director.

All three have indicated that they will plead not guilty.

A case management hearing is due to take place towards the end of May.

Tesco announced in the autumn of 2014 that profits had been overstated by more than £260m - a number subsequently revised upwards to £326m.

The disclosure came soon after Dave Lewis had been recruited from Unilever to replace the beleaguered Philip Clarke as Tesco's chief executive.

Under Mr Clarke, the profits of Britain's seemingly unassailable retail juggernaut had fallen sharply, with competition from lower-priced rivals Aldi and Lidl combining with an unsuccessful diversification into restaurant ownership and other activities.

The former boss had also been forced to wind down a failed effort to break into the US grocery market, with his successor continuing Tesco's international retrenchment by selling operations in South Korea and Turkey.

Mr Lewis has, however, set his sights on domestic expansion, announcing in January an audacious £3.7bn takeover of wholesaler Booker Group - a deal that looks certain to attract the close attention of competition watchdogs.

The SFO launched its Tesco inquiry in October 2014, and in recent months has said only that its probe into the retailer's accounting practices was continuing.

A DPA would be the second struck by the agency with a blue-chip corporate name in a matter of months.

In January, the SFO said it had reached a plea deal with Rolls Royce Holdings which involved the British engineering champion paying almost £500m to it and tens of millions of pounds more to authorities in the US and Brazil.

A number of other ex-bosses, including Mr Clarke, were interviewed under caution as part of the SFO's probe, but have since been told that they will face no further action.

The SFO's investigation has been focused on a trading update issued on 29 August, 2014 which stated that trading profit for the six months ending 23 August 2014 was expected to be in the region of £1.1bn.

Mr Lewis took over from Mr Clarke three days later, shortly after which a whistleblower highlighted concerns about Tesco's accounting practices relating to the recognition of revenue from suppliers.

A separate inquiry by the Financial Reporting Council into PricewaterhouseCoopers, Tesco's auditor at the time of the profit overstatement, remains ongoing.

Tesco is also defending itself against a number of shareholder lawsuits relating to the scandal, although it has paid modest sums to settle a number of other investors' legal claims.

Tesco declined to comment, while the SFO could not be reached for comment.

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