Councillor's wife's restaurant had received no electricity since 2005, court hears

A councillor allegedly made a fraudulent £10,000 business grant claim for a restaurant that had received no electricity for 16 years a court has heard.

Councillor Harman Banger and his wife are both on trial
Councillor Harman Banger and his wife are both on trial

Harman Banger, who represents East Park on Wolverhampton Council, applied for the grant last year on behalf of his wife, Neena Kumari, for Pizza Plus in The Orchard, Bilston, a restaurant described as "in a state of disrepair and boarded up".

Banger, 40, and Kumari, 37, both of Bilston Road in Wolverhampton, deny fraud by false representation.

Elaine Morgan, Senior Counter Fraud Officer with Wolverhampton Council told Walsall Magistrates Court today that she investigated the business after “some discrepancies” were identified in the grant application.

Kumari had sent a letter from gas and energy company npower to the council.

When Ms Morgan approached npower she said the company told her there had been an “energisation mismatch” at the site.

“My understanding was there was there was no supply to the premises,” she said.

“Npower said there had been no supply since 2005.

“I was concerned that the business owners had contacted npower to get something that they could send in to prove the business had been operational.”

Former npower employee Kerry Scoular said that the premises was “de-energised” in October 2008.

She said that meant that there is an electricity metre on site and that there is a live supply, but the company is not receiving readings.

Prosecutor Mr Daniel Oscroft said: “If I took my kettle in and plugged it in would it work?”

“No,” Ms Scoular replied.

Mr Balbir Singh, defending Banger, said that there is no record that npower physically de-energised the site.

“All that appears to have happened is that you sent letters requesting information in 2008, you had no responses and therefore changed the status to the site being de-energised,” he said.

“As far as I am aware that is the case,” Ms Scoular replied.

Ms Morgan told the court she made other checks regarding Pizza Plus including evidence of its promotion online but said she found none.

“I looked at Just Eat, Uber Eats, at directories including yell.com and social media, Facebook and Instagram,” said Ms Morgan.

“Did you find any evidence of marketing or promotion for Pizza Plus online?” asked Mr Oscroft.

“No, I did not,” she replied.

The court heard that in April last year Mr Banger’s accountant Suntharalingam Ragavan had registered the business online with HMRC and wrote to Wolverhampton City Council to register the business for rates.

“He (Banger) told me the business started on October 1, 2019,” said Mr Ragavan.

“Did you ever go to the business to see it running?” asked prosecutor Daniel Oscroft.

“No,” Mr Ragavan replied.

Mr Ragavan, who has acted for Mr Banger for 13 years, said he was “polite, professional, honest, polite and trustworthy”.

Mr Singh said: “Would you describe him as a decent, good man?”

“Yes,” said Mr Ragavan.

“Prior to Covid he was financially sound from what you could see?

“Yes.”

Mr Singh said that Banger had bought properties in The Orchard, Bilston - where Pizza Plus is located - in 2006 for £400,000.

“By 2020 they were worth 1.2 to 1.3 million,” said Mr Singh.

“The outstanding finance was £50,000 to £60,000.”

While Pizza Plus was owned by Kumari, the landlord of the property, based at 1 The Orchard, was JSB Properties - a company owned by Banger.

Labour councillor Banger stood down from his role as the city’s economy cabinet member after the allegations emerged in June last year.

He was arrested by West Midlands Police in June 2020 “on suspicion of fraud offences” and was released pending a full enquiry.

He has also been administratively suspended from the Labour group in the city pending the outcome of an internal party investigation.

The trial continues.

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