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STILL NO ANSWERS.

Byline: OONAGH BLACKMAN Deputy Political Editor

CONMAN Peter Foster left yet more unanswered questions about Cheriegate last night after effectively branding the Premier's wife a liar.

Claiming he was the victim of "character assassination", the convicted fraudster issued a statement contradicting Cherie Blair's version of events in three crucial areas.

But he then LIED himself by falsely claiming no one has ever lost money through his scams.

Making a "final statement in the interests of truth and clarity", he also alleged he was blackmailed over his links with Mrs Blair by former footballer and business colleague Paul Walsh.

Foster, lover of Mrs Blair's close friend and style guru Carole Caplin, said in a message to the Blairs: "I apologise to Tony and Cherie for the mess a little help from your friends can get you into."

Dismissing his statement, Downing Street said curtly: "We have nothing to add or subtract. We'll leave a convicted conman to focus on his own business."

With Foster and No 10 refusing to comment further, it now seems the sorry saga which has brought New Labour to a new low is drawing to a close. But the truth is as murky as ever.

Foster was speaking publicly for the first time about his contacts with Mrs Blair, his involvement in her purchase of two flats in Bristol, and her alleged assistance in his fight against deportation.

RIDDLE No 1: Foster said yesterday: "I only met Cherie once. We spoke on the phone three times and corresponded by email."

Mrs Blair, a QC and part-time judge, has agreed she met Foster just once by chance.

But she said in her statement a week ago: "It is being suggested that beyond this I spoke twice to Mr Foster. I did not."

RIDDLE No 2: Referring to his fight against deportation, Foster said: "I remain appreciative of the later innocent advice given to me by Cherie. She passed on to me a professional view of where I stood."

Mrs Blair, who has admitted ringing Foster's solicitor, said in her statement: "I phoned simply to put her (Ms Caplin's) mind at rest that the normal process was being followed. I emphatically did not try to influence this one way or another."

RIDDLE No 3: Foster insists he negotiated a pounds 69,000 discount on the purchase of the two Bristol flats, worth together pounds 525,000.

He said yesterday: "Yes, I managed a pounds 69,000 discount. This was nothing to do with using the Blair name or working an angle - it was about the art of negotiation."

But Mrs Blair said in a written statement after publication of emails between her and Foster that a discount on one of the properties was negotiated at an earlier stage, before Foster stepped in.

She said: "Through a family friend I was told of a particular complex of flats. In early October I entered into detailed correspondence on this with the friend and, through her, with the property's agents.

"It was during these initial discussions that the asking price for the property was reduced from pounds 295,000 to pounds 269,000." Foster, jailed for slimming frauds, protested he was painted as a "liar, evil and a fantasist". He said outside the ITN studios in London: "I am neither a liar or a fantasist. I equally take issue with the description of evil.

"No one has ever lost money through my enterprises. I know I'm a flawed man but I do not believe I'm a bad man." Claiming he was the victim, he added: "I have been the subject of extraordinary character assassination...could it be I had to be discredited by the Establishment?"

Last night the fraudster's claim that no one lost money on his "enterprises" was rubbished.

Esther Rantzen, whose That's Life TV programme frequently exposed his cheats, said: "I assume that having heard that, thousands of people will be queueing up to say 'Can I have my money back?'"

She accused Foster of attempting to gain publicity for an autobiography he said he was writing.

Martyn Wollen, 46 - who nearly lost his home because of a Foster scam - said the conman was guilty of a "bare-faced lie". Martyn, of Swindon, Wilts, gave up his soft drinks business and paid pounds 6,000 to distribute Foster's Bai Lin slimming tea which, unknown to him, was bogus.

When sales soared, Martyn agreed to pay another pounds 6,000 for a second franchise. Then he found Foster had already sold the rights to someone else.

When Martyn asked for his pounds 6,000 back Foster refused and cut off supplies. A court ordered Foster to pay Martyn pounds 12,000. He was never paid. Martyn said: "He's a five-star con artist."

Forty five per cent of voters are dissatisfied with Cherie Blair's explanation of a week ago, an ICM poll for The Guardian says today.

CAPTION(S):

LINKS: Mrs Blair yesterday; CLAIMS: Foster after his statement yesterday Picture: REUTERS
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Publication:The Mirror (London, England)
Date:Dec 17, 2002
Words:828
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