Seven-year prison term for fugitive Lib Dem donor

Fraudster stole £8m from former chairman of Manchester United

The Liberal Democrats' biggest donor, who remains on the run after stealing nearly £8m from the former chairman of Manchester United, was sentenced in his absence to seven years in jail yesterday.

Michael Brown, 42, posed as highly successful bond dealer and claimed connections with royalty to steal the money from the former Manchester United chairman Charles Edwards.

Judge James Wadsworth QC told Southwark Crown Court in London that an international manhunt had proved fruitless. Brown is now one of Britain's most wanted men and is reported to have fled to Majorca or the Caribbean after changing his appearance and his name.

The court heard Brown secretly used investors' cash for a record £2.4m donation to the Liberal Democrats' 2005 election war chest.

When the Glasgow-born businessman was found guilty in his absence in November, the Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg insisted his party had done nothing wrong by accepting the donation. Speaking after the verdict, Mr Clegg said "everyone recognised" the fact his party accepted the donation "in good faith".

Brown, whose last known address was in Hampstead, north-west London, "tricked" an international line-up of wealthy clients with promises of massive returns of up to 50 per cent. He would tell them that his father was a lord and that he was connected to royalty.

Altogether, they gave him £36m, nearly £8m of which belonged to Charles Edwards, who is also known as Martin. He stood trial only in connection with the former football chief's losses. Jurors were told his apparent political largesse was simply part of a carefully crafted "illusion of wealth and influence" designed to give him the social acceptability he craved. Much of the money was squandered on a luxury life of fast cars, a cruiser, a jet and no-expense-spared holidays, the court heard.

Following the donation to the Liberal Democrats he flew in a private plane with the leader at the time, Charles Kennedy, and dined with other senior party figures.

Sentencing Brown in his absence the judge gave him three six-year sentences for theft and furnishing false information, to run concurrently, and a further year for perverting the course of justice. The judge said: "He deliberately and voluntarily absented himself from his trial. It is clear that these are matters which essentially constituted a breach of trust in that he had obtained the relevant money for the purpose of investing it upon the money's owners' and his clients' behalf.

"Instead of using it as he should have done, he partly used it to pay off earlier investors and partly to indulge in high living for his own benefit."

Last year the jury heard Brown's disappearance in July was the second time had fled justice.

The first occasion in 2005 was to escape a perjury and false passport declaration case arising out of concerns by the HSBC Bank about the way he was managing clients' multimillion-pound investments.

He was subsequently traced to his "luxury hilltop villa in Majorca", extradited, and jailed for two years after admitting both charges. After his release from prison, he was bailed in connection with the offences he was sentenced for yesterday. But once again he absconded.

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