Lastminute.com’s bosses in custody for possible misuse of Covid support funds

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Lastminute.com, the online travel company, has begun the search for a new chief executive after its two bosses and three other executives were remanded in custody by Swiss authorities as part of a probe into possible misuse of pandemic-related state aid funds.

The company, which is headquartered in the Swiss town of Chiasso, said it had suspended its co-chief executives Andrea Bertoli and Fabio Cannavale for at least three months after they were detained by the Public Prosecutor’s Office of the Swiss canton of Ticino over the weekend.

Five current and former executives and managers of Lastminute.com subsidiaries were detained as part of the case. One senior employee was released on Saturday after being questioned, while the other four, including Bertoli and Cannavale, could remain in custody for up to seven weeks. Prosecutors also blocked SFr7mn ($7.26mn) in company accounts.

Lastminute.com said on Monday it had installed its chief customer officer Laura Amoretti as interim chief executive while it searches for a permanent replacement.

The UK travel website, which became emblematic of the dotcom boom and bust, was bought by Cannavale, the founder of European travel group Bravofly, in 2014 for £76mn, about an eighth of the £577mn price tag it was first sold for in 2005.

The group was founded in 1998 by British entrepreneurs Martha Lane Fox and Brent Hoberman, who exited the business in 2005.

Lastminute.com’s stock has lost nearly a quarter of its value since Swiss prosecutors applied to remand the executives and directors. It was just trading just above 19p on Monday afternoon on the Swiss stock exchange.

The investigation focuses on the company’s Swiss subsidiaries — BravoNext SA, BravoMeta CH SA and LMNext CH SA — and their use of the Swiss government’s short-time work allowance scheme during the pandemic, which helped cover workers’ wages in industries shuttered by Covid-19 restrictions.

Between March 2020 and February 2022, the Swiss subsidiaries, which employ about 500 staff, received SFr28.5mn.

Lastminute.com was also threatened with legal action last year by the UK’s Competition and Markets Authority over the tardy repayment of about £1mn in refunds to 2,600 customers after their holidays were cancelled in late 2020 as the winter Covid-19 surge took hold.

In a statement released on Monday, Lastminute.com’s chair Laurent Foata praised the incoming chief executive’s “vision, energy and substantial relevant experience”, adding that “her contribution will be especially precious at this juncture”.

Last week, Foata said: “We are confident that management behaved respectfully vis-à-vis institutions and employees throughout the dramatic and unprecedented circumstances of the pandemic. The company will work alongside the Swiss authority to quickly clarify the matters.”

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