Mike Ashley, the billionaire owner of Newcastle United, is moving from the pub to the golf course in his latest high court dispute with a former business partner.
Ashley claims his former “trusted friend” Tony Jimenez, an executive at Newcastle United under Ashley until 2008, lured him into handing over £3m linked to a fraudulent investment in a French golf course. The Sports Direct boss is seeking £3m-plus interest of about £800,000 in recompense for breach of contract.
The lawsuit comes shortly after Ashley successfully fought off a legal claim by former Sports Direct executive Jeff Blue over a £15m deal allegedly made in a London pub during a “night of heavy drinking”.
Mr Justice Leggatt, the judge who oversaw that case said he found it “a lot more interesting than some”, but ruled that no one would have thought what Ashley said in the pub was “serious”.
In legal documents filed at the high court in London, Ashley says that in May 2008 he agreed to pay Jimenez £3m, which he believed would be invested in the Loire-based golf course Les Bordes in return for a 5% “or thereabouts” stake in the site’s owner.
The two men agreed verbally that the investment would be paid to Jimenez’s company South Horizon, which was said to be in a position to provide the stake in Les Bordes’ holding company, according to the court documents.
Ashley’s high court claim says Jimenez, a former co-owner of Charlton Athletic football club, practiced a “deliberate fraud” in order to retain the money for himself without securing the golf course investment. It alleges that Jimenez reassured Ashley the investment was effective and his interest in the shares being formalised when he knew that was not the case.
In 2013 Ashley became aware, according to the documents, of a claim brought by former Newcastle United footballer Dennis Wise over a £500,000 investment in the same golf course. The judge ordered Jimenez to pay Wise compensation of that sum saying that he had been “guilty of considerable obfuscation” concerning the money paid to him.
Ashley’s claim says he made inquiries that led to his lawyers receiving confirmation that neither he or Jimenez’s South Horizon were, or had ever been, investors in Les Bordes’ Cyprus-based holding company.
When confronted with that evidence, Jimenez claimed Ashley had been too late in sending the £3m and so had lost the opportunity to purchase the shares in Les Bordes, according to the court filing. It was allegedly said that Ashley had agreed the sum would not be returned but used as an advance payment of a fee claimed to be owed to Jimenez for procuring a purchaser for Newcastle United.
The claim says: “Jimenez did not have any honest belief that he was entitled to the investment sum or to dispose of it,” and that the story about the fee advance was “no more than a dishonest attempt to justify and explain the wrongful disposal and/or misapplication of Mr Ashley’s money”.
Details of the case have emerged before Sports Direct’s annual shareholder meeting in Shirebrook next week. Unlike last year, when he toured the company’s controversial warehouse with City analysts and journalists, Ashley is not expected to attend.
In a statement issued last week, the company said Ashley faced “conflicting demands for his time in other areas of the business” and so, in a highly unusual move for a listed company, had won the agreement of the board not to be “required to attend”.
Jimenez was unavailable for comment.