The former boss of a football club who took part in one of the country's biggest cigarette smuggling crimes was jailed for five and half years today.
Guy Simpson, who used to be chief executive of Southern League Premier Division side Halesowen Town, helped organise the shipment from China loaded in two 40ft (12m) containers which held more than 21 million counterfeit cigarettes.
He admitted at an earlier hearing to fraudulently avoiding duty totalling £4.5 million on the shipment.
The 53-year-old, of Flag Lane, Heath Charnock, Lancashire, was arrested after a routine scan of the container at Southampton docks found the fake Regal brand.
They were on board the Maersk Algol which arrived in Southampton from China on December 13, 2008.
Tim Moores, prosecuting, told Southampton Crown Court that the containers were registered to Simpson's company BS Property Developments (North West) Ltd and were supposed to hold gym balls.
When Customs said the containers were to be scanned, the barrister said Simpson panicked and "started to take steps to cover his tracks" because he had organised the shipment and completed all the paperwork.
He said the goods were not his and belonged to a third party. He even made up the name of a man called Derek Gardner, who was supposed to be involved, but the prosecution said did not exist.
Customs found the containers "full to the brim" with the cigarettes, taking a team a whole day to unload them, and Simpson was arrested.
"This was one of the largest duty evasion offences this country has ever seen," Mr Moores told the court.
At the time Simpson's business empire was failing and he was significantly in debt, the court heard.
Mr Moores said the businessman was involved with Halesowen Town but had ambitions to put himself forward to Premier League managers and agents.
Simpson also liked the high life, and the court was told that when he had an email saying "game on", which meant the cigarettes were on their way, he booked a cruise for him and his wife. He was on the cruise when the cigarettes were discovered.
In mitigation, Andrew Hallworth, said the offence was "motivated by financial difficulties" and that Simpson was to be paid only £25,000 for organising the shipment, but he didn't know how many cigarettes were in the containers.
He was nearly £900,000 in debt and faced bankruptcy.
Sentencing Simpson, Judge Peter Ralls QC said: "You were deeply involved in this matter in my judgment.
"You had expertise in import and export that was useful to yourself and the other people in this whole plot."
He said Simpson had a "pivotal role" in the crime and the sheer scale of it was important.
The seized cigarettes were subsequently shredded and burnt at a power station to help power the national grid.
A confiscation hearing under the Proceeds of Crime Act will take place in September.
Speaking after the case, HM Revenue and Customs spokesman John Cooper said: "This was a blatant attempt to smuggle massive quantities of counterfeit cigarettes into Southampton and on to the UK's streets.
"Criminals like Simpson don't care about undercutting honest retailers, depriving the UK of public funds or consider the real content of their cheap fake cigarettes. Smugglers only care about profit."Reuse content