Ex-magistrate stripped of £4.1m after fraud

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The Independent Online

A former magistrate who was jailed for a £38,000 fraud was ordered to give up his assets worth £4.1 million at a confiscation hearing today.

Accountant Nirmal Sharma, 51, of Langley Road, Slough, Berkshire, was told he must pay the cash within six months or face eight years in prison under tough legislation designed to strip criminals of their "ill-gotten gains".

Sharma has already served a jail term after he was found guilty at Winchester Crown Court in 2007 of seven counts of deception, one count of false accounting and one charge of intending to pervert the course of justice.

He was sentenced to 30 months imprisonment for the theft offences and nine months imprisonment for attempting to pervert the course of justice.

His conviction prompted a lengthy investigation under the Criminal Justice Act 1988 by the Thames Valley Police Economic Crime Unit (ECU) and all his assets were declared to be criminal and liable for confiscation last year.

The hearing today at Southampton Crown Court was told that Sharma, who owned several companies including an accountancy firm and a travel agents, had never co-operated with the investigation into his criminal assets.

The married father-of-three, who sat at Slough Magistrates' Court, was not in court to hear the ruling.

He was a prominent member of the Slough community until he used his accounting business to steal from his friends Naveed Ghafoor and Devinder Chahal, who were clients from 1996 until 2003.

He embezzled cash from them because they trusted him to bill them for the correct amounts of tax and VAT.

But Sharma pretended they owed more and used the extra sums from them to pay other tax and VAT bills for other companies, or the money was paid to his brother.

The investigation by police to find his assets was complicated by the substantial movement of funds involving millions of pounds that were transferred offshore and then moved through different jurisdictions such as Guernsey, Singapore and India and into stocks and shares, as well as commercial properties.

The complex investigation traced his affairs back six years from his arrest in 2003 to 1997 to try and unravel his finances and crimes.

In December last year, Judge Tom Longbotham ruled that all of the assets are his criminal property, despite the fact that they are mostly held in the names of members of Sharma's immediate family.

The assets that must now be sold are: property worth £1.23 million, including his family home, shares and funds totalling £1.6 million and, vehicles worth £15,000 with the rest of the sum of £4.1 million made up of cash in bank accounts from numerous sources.

He has six months to dispose of the property and hand over £1,253,609 and three months to release £2,847,730, or go to prison in default.

This is one of the largest orders obtained by Thames Valley Police to date, and brings the total amount of assets recovered by the ECU in 2009 to £5.2 million.

In making the order, Judge Longbotham said: "The defendant is man who has an enormous mastery of his financial affairs."

He also imposed a Financial Reporting Order under the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act 2005, forcing him to declare income and assets to the authorities for the next ten years.

"In my judgement the risk of Mr Sharma committing another offence is sufficiently high to make the order," the judge said.

Speaking after the case, financial investigator Phillip Croxson said: "The offences themselves gave an assumption that any property held by the defendant or transferred to the defendant are the proceeds of crime unless it could be determined otherwise, so the burden of proof fell to him.

"Mr Sharma has not co-operated with the Proceedings.

"This is an excellent result and Sharma will have to pay a considerable amount of the money he obtained through his criminality.

"He finally chose not to give live evidence in the confiscation proceedings, and this was taken into account by the judge when delivering his ruling.

"Criminals need to be aware that the Economic Crime Unit will continue to bring asset recovery proceedings against them to strip them of their ill-gotten gains, no matter how long it takes to bring about a successful conclusion.

"This is harsh and very powerful legislation, as demonstrated by the fact the proven offences in this case had a monetary value of less than £40,000, and compensation has already been paid to the victims."