Apprentice contestant avoids jail
A former contestant in Lord Sugar's hit The Apprentice was given a suspended sentence for fraud today.
Mortgage broker Christopher Farrell attempted to dupe lenders by falsifying customers' applications so they were more likely to be loaned money.
The former Royal Marine, who appeared in the most recent series of the BBC1 show, inflated applicants' salaries and forged documents to clinch them a mortgage - and in turn increase his chances of reaching his sales bonus.
Farrell, 29, was arrested last August after a bank cottoned on to the fraud, but tried to blame his colleagues for forging the documents.
However, he quickly admitted his guilt and pleaded guilty to four counts of fraud by false representation before magistrates in Plymouth last month. He asked for three further charges to be taken into consideration.
Appearing at Plymouth Crown Court today, Farrell was given a nine month prison sentence, suspended for two years, and 200 hours' community service.
Farrell, of Arrowe Park Road, Upton, Wirral, Merseyside, worked as a mortgage and insurance adviser with the company, Mortgages for Plymouth, between November 2007 and August 2009.
He then went on to take part in The Apprentice, where he was fired by Lord Sugar in week eight of the show.
The former broker, who earned £1,600 a month, would earn commission of between £300 and £400 if he made sales of more than £5,000 a month.
Under pressure to support his wife and young child, he admitted altering P60 forms, payslips and creating fake documents to ensure their mortgage applications were successful - thereby hitting his monthly target.
His arrest emerged on the eve of the start of the last series of Lord Sugar's show when it was also revealed that he had two previous convictions for possessing an offensive weapon.
Today's hearing was told that, since his last court appearance, Farrell had separated from his wife.
Prosecutor David Gittins told the court: "Christopher Farrell started working as a mortgage and insurance adviser at Mortgages4Plymouth in November 2007 and worked there until he was fired in August 2009.
"On top of this standard salary he received a bonus if he exceeded his £5,000 monthly target.
"It was not until July 2008 that he began to exceed that target.
"After that he took part in The Apprentice programme.
"The Crown's case is that Mr Farrell obtained mortgages for clients fraudulently by falsifying their incomes, although it is important to note that he did so without their knowledge to ensure lenders granted mortgages and thus ensuring he reached his monthly target."
Mr Gittins explained that Farrell, who earned a salary of £1,600 a month, would earn commission of a few hundred pounds if he made sales of more than £5,000 a month.
Desperate to earn more money to support his wife and young family, Farrell started inflating the incomes of clients to ensure their mortgage applications were successful - thereby hitting his monthly sales target.
Farrell would either alter P60 forms or payslips to show his clients in a more favourable light to a mortgage lender or create fake documents.
However, Farrell - who stood to earn between £300 and £400 extra a month - never received his bonuses.
The court heard that Farrell made three mortgage applications and one re-mortgage application on behalf of his clients - totalling £750,000.
The first application for Nigel Blenkarne for a mortgage of £575,000 was turned down by the Halifax Building Society, despite Farrell changing a P60 and a payslip to show he earned £120,000 a year instead of his real annual salary of £40,000.
"He altered the monthly payslips and the Halifax approved that mortgage application but a forged signature was spotted," Mr Gittins said.
"For a short time Mr Blenkarne had a fraud mark against his name. He unfortunately did apply for a mortgage with the Royal Bank of Scotland but because of the fraud mark they rejected him."
The second application was on behalf of Marcia Edwards to Santander, which gave her a mortgage despite Farrell altering her P60 form and a payslip to show she earned £6,500 a year more than she did.
The third mortgage application was also to Santander, on behalf of Peter Phillips and his partner Marlise Ceenaeme, who wanted to borrow £93,000.
Farrell copied a payslip from Miss Ceenaeme, who worked at the University of Plymouth, to show that Mr Phillips worked there as well.
The reality was that Mr Phillips had recently graduated from the university and was looking for work and not earning £1,600 a month.
The fraud came to light when Santander carried out its own routine checks and noticed that Mr Phillips's university payslip was false.
Miss Ceenaeme was suspended from her job for a week until it became clear that Farrell was responsible.
The former Marine also dealt with a re-mortgage application to the Abbey National Building Society on behalf of a Mr and Mrs Michael Bray, who wanted to raise £40,000 to help their daughter get on the property ladder.
As the couple were both self-employed, Farrell amended a payslip from Plymouth Council to pretend it had come from Mrs Bray's former employer Lewisham Council, in south-east London, and also fabricated a letter purporting to show Mr Bray's income.
The court heard that Farrell had made a bad job of forging a Lewisham Council payslip by failing to remove Plymouth telephone numbers from them.
After Farrell was arrested he first tried to blame his colleagues at Mortgages4Plymouth for forging the documents but quickly admitted his guilt - and pleaded guilty today at the first opportunity.
"The Crown's case is that by falsifying these documents the mortgage applications would be more readily accepted and so that he would receive more commission once his monthly target had been exceeded," Mr Gittins said.
The prosecutor said there was no actual loss to the mortgage lenders and Farrell's clients were continuing to meet their monthly repayments.
Malcolm Clarke, defending, said Farrell had a distinguished 10-year career in the Royal Marines, completing tours in Iraq, Afghanistan, Kosovo, Sierra Leone and Northern Ireland.
After The Apprentice, Farrell now works freelance for a company supplying security services overseas to the shipping industry.
He was often away on contracts for a month at a time but has not worked since September because of the criminal proceedings.
He will now start a new job on Monday when he flies out to Sri Lanka to protect ships from pirates.
Mr Clarke added: "He is now separated from his wife and child as a result of the publicity surrounding this case.
"He is extremely upset about that. He was just trying to make ends meet and try to please the company."
Judge Francis Gilbert QC imposed a nine-month prison sentence for each of the four charges, suspended for two years.
He told a smartly-dressed Farrell: "I give you full credit to pleading guilty and I take into account what your counsel has said and the contents of the pre-sentence report.
"You pleaded guilty to four offences of fraud and asked the court to take into account three similar offences while you were working as a mortgage adviser.
"You did so without the knowledge of the clients in order to get more commission for yourself.
"Balanced against that wrongdoing, you spent 10 years in the Royal Marines, serving in Kosovo, Northern Ireland, Iraq, Afghanistan and Sierra Leone. You gave very good service to your country.
"You say you found it difficult to cope with the pressure of the business world.
"These are your first offences of dishonesty and the sentence I pass for each offence is nine months' imprisonment suspended for two years.
"You will also carry out 200 hours of unpaid work, which will be possible to work around your work commitments."
Farrell's arrest for fraud emerged on the eve of the start of the current series of Lord Sugar's show when it was also revealed that he has a weapons conviction, which he did not disclose to TV producers.
Farrell appeared before Plymouth Crown Court in September 2009 - just before filming for The Apprentice started - to admit the two charges.
Police had found an extendable baton and a knuckleduster in his Mercedes after being called to his Plymouth home following allegations that he had hit his wife with the knuckleduster.
The judge rejected claims that the weapons were "trinkets" from his forces days being stored in the car, giving him a two-year conditional discharge but ordering him to pay £847 costs. His wife did not press charges.
A check did not pick up the conviction because it was made in the month before his court appearance.
Speaking outside the crown court, Farrell said he "deeply regretted" what he had done.
"I'm really sorry about what's happened. It shouldn't have happened and it is something I deeply regret," he told reporters.
"I am wanting to put it behind me and move on with my life and I would like to thank everyone for their support during a tough time in my life."
Farrell added: "There has been a lot of stress caused, self-inflicted, but I am glad it's all over and out of the way and looking forward to the future.
"I fly out to Sri Lanka on Monday protecting the ships from Somali pirates."
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