Friend jailed over £32m theft from football boss

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The Independent Online

Allan Leonard had rather unusual names for his racehorses - Exit to Rio, Creative Account, Mock Trial and No Extradition. "Looking back, perhaps we should have seen the signs," sighs Richard Thompson. But no one did, and Leonard, a trusted friend and long-serving employee of the mega-rich Thompson family, went on to swindle £32m.

Allan Leonard had rather unusual names for his racehorses - Exit to Rio, Creative Account, Mock Trial and No Extradition. "Looking back, perhaps we should have seen the signs," sighs Richard Thompson. But no one did, and Leonard, a trusted friend and long-serving employee of the mega-rich Thompson family, went on to swindle £32m.

Yesterday at the Old Bailey, Leonard, a 50-year-old former commodities trader, was sentenced to three years and one month's jail after pleading guilty to 15 charges of deception, false accounting and fraudulent trading. He asked for 257 other offences to be taken into consideration.

Andrew Mitchell, QC, prosecuting, told the court that Leonard's fraudulent practices had stretched over 15 years, with elaborate scams that included a "sophisticated web" of offshore companies and false mailing addresses. Huge "profits" were recorded for trading in thousands of tons of wheat that did not exist, with imaginary companies.

Sentencing Leonard, of Knowlwood, Chislehurt, Kent, Judge Neil Denison, QC, the Common Sergeant of London, said the fraud had "been on a massive scale". But he took into account the psychological strain Leonard and his family had endured waiting for the trial. He also banned him from holding a company directorship for seven years.

Leonard, balding, tubby, blinking behind his glasses, was led from the dock of Court 6 to the cells as his wife and daughter watched from the public gallery. He left behind him an extraordinary tale of greed and theft in a milieu of staggering wealth.

Leonard was the chairman and chief executive of a commodities firm, Muirpace, part of the business empire built up by the former meat trader David Thompson, 63, and his 35-year-old son, Richard. The scale of Leonard's fraud created damaging reverberations which, it is believed, wiped £90m off the Thompson's estimated fortune. But it leaves them with £250m. William Boyce, Leonard's counsel, told the court the Thompson family was "extraordinarily wealthy, and the losses will not affect their lifestyle".

Richard Thompson says the family business is recovering from the ravages of Leonard's looting. They are taking legal advice on whether they can recover some of the losses. But he said: "If you look over the years, we have made more money out of Allan Leonard than we lost." Meanwhile, after becoming involved in consortiums that owned two football clubs, Queen's Park Rangers and Leeds United, he is focusing on the film business. Gangster No.1, his first production, with Channel 4, stars Malcolm McDowell and Saffron Burrows.

The Thompsons had been close to Leonard, sharing a passion for racehorses. David Thompson and his wife, Patricia, have joined the parade with the Queen at Royal Ascot, and the family own the prestigious Cheveley Park stud in Newmarket, which produced the 1992 Grand National winner, Party Politics.

Leonard was also well known in racing circles as a punter and owner. One of his geldings, Top Cees, which won the 1995 Chester Cup, was sold to a partnership including the multi-millionaire bloodstock owner Robert Sangster.

David Thompson happily admits he has mixed with some colourful characters since he began his upward mobility from Smithfield market. The company he built up, Hillsdown, became a phenomenal success, acquiring a portfolio of food brands, from Typhoo tea to Buxted chicken. He sold it in 1987, before the stock market crashed, making around £180m.

Around this time, Leonard suggested to Mr Thompson that he buy a horse he had his eye on. Mr Thompson turned it down and the horse went on to do well. A second tip was also rejected and this time the horse went on to win the Prix de L'Arc de Triumph. After this, Leonard could do no wrong in Mr Thompson's eyes. The thoroughbreds the family bought on his recommendation made"enormous" sums of money, Mr Boyce told the court.

Mr Thompson also backed Leonard's company, Muirpace, which dealt in wheat, oats and barley. Leonard officially had a salary of £130,000, but his opulent lifestyle suggested far higher earnings. Then in the mid-Eighties, he took a massive risk, staking millions of pounds on the coffee market staying stable. Prices fluctuated wildly, and he faced ruin.

He began his deception, intercepting the company's post, creating forged documents and false mailing addresses. One belonged to Laureen Thorold, a woman in her sixties and owner of Old Watermill Cottage, Aswarby, Lincolnshire. She was said to have been persuaded by Leonard to use her address. He told herhe was buying wheat crops in advance in the East Anglian area and selling them after the harvest, so needed a Lincolnshire address.

He used this façade to sell options on behalf of his clients, and presented glowing profit figures for his company to the Thompson family.

The fraud was discovered in 1997 and Leonard confessed. He was arrested and signed over assets of £1.6m.

The Serious Fraud Office had investigated reports that another £14m had been laundered through property and bloodstock. But Leonard's counsel told the court: "There is no evidence of even so much as a hoof... Every penny has gone for solicitors acting for the Thompsons."

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