Former city councillor Harman Banger and wife cleared of Covid business grant fraud on appeal
Former cabinet member for Wolverhampton Council Harman Banger has been cleared of fraudulently applying for a Covid-19 business grant.
Mr Banger and his wife Neena Kumari were found guilty at Walsall Magistrates Court last December but successfully appealed the conviction at Birmingham Crown Court this month.
The former Labour councillor and wife were both in tears as Judge Peter Carr exonerated them both, accepting that Mrs Kumari did run a takeaway from a run down shop in Bilston.
Mr Banger told the Express & Star: "I am delighted with the outcome today, I have finally been exonerated of these false charges against me.
"I hope to now start to rebuild my life."
He added: "I would like to thank Deepak Vij, director of ABV Solicitors, and his team including Thekla Sorokkou for working tirelessly in my case and believing me. I would also like to thank Michael Goodwin KC and Felicia Davy who represented my wife."
When asked if he would now resume his political career Mr Banger said "it is too early to think about that".
Judge Carr ruled on the appeal after hearing evidence with two magistrates. The defence produced several witnesses who claimed to have helped, supplied or eaten from Miss Kumari'e Pizza Plus takeaway, the Orchard, Bilston.
The judge ruled: "In all the circumstances, we have concluded that the prosecution have not satisfied us to the necessary standard that the representation that Neena Kumari was in occupation was false, whatever we may think about some of the evidence produced.
"Accordingly we allow Kumari’s appeal against conviction. The cases of these appellants stand or fall together, and in any event, Harman Banger cannot be guilty if Neena Kumari is not guilty. Accordingly, we allow his appeal as well."
Neena Kumari's solicitors, father and son team Hockam and Stefan Salhan, were delighted the appeal was successful.
Stefan said: "This is a brilliant day for our client, we knew she was innocent throughout both trials. It is great to see justice being done today."
The case centred on the question of whether Mrs Kumari was running a legitimate business when she applied for a £10,000 Covid-19 support grant in 2020. Wolverhampton Council officials investigated the validity of the claim as her business premises were boarded up and flooded. There was also no electricity at the premises.
Mr Banger was elected councillor for East Park ward in 2011 and was appointed to the cabinet in 2019. He was forced to resign his seat earlier this year.
Mr Banger's solicitor Deepak Vij slammed West Midlands Police and Wolverhampton Council for pursuing the case through the courts.
He said: "This case was woefully investigated first by the Wolverhampton City Council and then by the police, who did not investigate any of the customers or suppliers for the business that was set up and operating.
"I hope lessons are learned from this. It was clear Harman Banger was innocent and that he was nothing but helpful and cooperative with the investigators from the outset."
He added: "It was abundantly clear that he should not have been charged in the first place, resulting in a terrible ordeal for him and his family.
"Harman Banger can now start to rebuild his future with his reputation fully intact."
During his ruling Judge Carr revealed he questioned the evidence of the Wolverhampton Council employee who claimed she could not deliver a letter because there was no letterbox at Pizza Plus.
He said: "She said she could not serve it because 'there wasn’t a post box, so there was no facility to push the document through'. She was mistaken.
"When one looks at the video taken of the premises the day the police went there, it is clear that there is a letterbox in the front door.
"We also point out that there were two notices stating 'Closed until further notice' – due to Covid. Why was it necessary to put notices to that effect on the premises unless it was being used for something?"