Leader of tax fraud gang jailed for 12 years

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The Independent Online

The ringleader of a multi-million pound vodka and tobacco tax fraud was jailed for 12 years today.

Harvey Conroy, whose gang had strong links with eastern Europe, ran a determined and professional outfit which produced fake vodka and tobacco without paying excise duty or VAT, defrauding the state of millions of pounds.

Richard Christie QC, for the prosecution, said Conroy ran a "determined and professional" gang in a bid to make massive profits.

They employed mainly Polish "foot soldiers" to produce more than a million litres of vodka at a fully-mechanised distillery and bottling factory in Dalston Lane, Hackney, east London, which had the capacity to push out 24 bottles every minute.

For two years from July 2005, Conroy, 60, and his gang produced fake bottles of Smirnoff, Glen's, and Kirov vodka, Southwark Crown Court in central London heard.

When customs officials raided the plant in June 2007, officials found £750,000 worth of vodka waiting to be sold.

"Everything you would possibly need to package and send out the vodka to be sold was there," Mr Christie said.

Earlier, investigators watched a lorry loaded with empty bottles being driven from North Weald Aerodrome, in Essex, to Homerton Road, near the gang's specialised distillery.

Inside the lorry were 23 stacked palettes containing 13,000 litre bottles of fake Glen's vodka ready for sale, the court heard.

Judge Martin Beddoe put the estimated cost of the fraud at £10 million.

Conroy and his gang also ran a tobacco fraud alongside the vodka conspiracy, but it was still in its early days when it was shut down by investigators.

"It's striking that the alcohol factory had exactly the same format set up for it as the tobacco factory, with the same key personnel, and was carried out in the same manner," Mr Christie said.

The tobacco factory, at Queensway Industrial Estate, Ponders End, Enfield, north London, caused further tax losses of £687,000, the court heard.

When it was raided in November 2007, officials uncovered several tonnes of rolling tobacco in the process of being prepared for sale in fake packaging branded Golden Virginia.

"The factories were designed to defraud the state of both excise duty and VAT over two years from July 2005," Mr Christie said.

"The aim of the factories was to create massive profits for the defendants."

Conroy, of Totteridge Common, Whetstone, north London, acted as the managing director of the conspiracies with the five other men in the dock all playing key roles, Mr Christie said.

Several Polish workers arrested during the raids fled while on bail and remain on the run, the court heard.

The vodka scam ran from at least January 2005 and, following its success, the tobacco factory was set up in January 2007.

Charles Conway, in mitigation for Conroy, said: "He's now a spent force."

He said the Polish financiers behind the scams had never been caught and, referring to Conroy, added: "Although he may be at the top of the tree in relation to this case, he's not in relation to this conspiracy.

"The top of the tree are the Poles because they would be the ones benefiting most. They must be."

Conroy and four other men were convicted of their roles in evading duty and VAT on the vodka and duty on the tobacco while a sixth man was convicted of being involved in the vodka fraud only.

Conroy was convicted of three counts of conspiracy to cheat HMRC along with:

* Michael Oliver, 62, of Cae Brynton Road, Newport, Gwent, who was jailed for 10 years.

* Alan Saunderson, 59, of Linden Close, west Kensington, London, who was jailed for eight years.

* Steven Davis, 46, of South Quay Square, Poplar, east London, who was jailed for 10 years; and

* Geoffrey Hall, 51, of Town End Crescent, Stoke Goddington, Newport Pagnell, Buckinghamshire, who was jailed for 11 years.

A sixth man - Christopher Hill, 60, of Glenroy Court, Magor, Monmouthshire - was convicted of two count of conspiracy to cheat HMRC by evading duty and VAT on alcoholic products.

He was jailed for six-and-a-half years.