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Three directors jailed over £23m biofuels fraud

Three men have been jailed for a total of 28 years for their part in a £23m fraud which promoted biofuel investments to UK investors.

Following a Serious Fraud Office investigation, Gary West, James Whale and Stuart Stone were last week convicted of conspiracy to commit fraud, conspiracy to furnish false information, fraudulent trading and Bribery Act offences at Southwark Crown Court.

The SFO investigated collapsed biofuels firm Sustainable Growth Group and its subsidiaries Sustainable AgroEnergy and Sustainable Wealth Investments.

The investigation focused on the selling and promotion of Sustainable AgroEnergy investment products based on “green biofuel” Jatropha tree plantations in Cambodia.

The products were sold to around 1,500 UK investors who invested primarily via self-invested pension plans.

The investors were deliberately misled into believing Sustainable AgroEnergy owned land in Cambodia that was planted with Jatropha trees and there was an insurance policy in place to protect investors if the crops failed.

West was the director and chief commercial officer of Sustainable AgroEnergy, Whale is the former chief executive of Sustainable Growth Group and Stone was director of SJ Stone, a sales agent of unregulated pension and investment products.

At a hearing this week, West was sentenced to 13 years in jail, while Whale was sentenced to nine years and Stone to six years.

West and Whale were disqualified from being a director for 15 years while Stone was disqualified for 10 years.

Handing down the sentence, the judge described the fraud as a “quagmire of dishonesty”, noting many of the victims were of modest means and had lost all their life savings and homes.

SFO director David Green says: “These three individuals preyed on investors, many of whom were duped into investing life savings and pension funds. As a result, many lost life-changing amounts of money.

“This successful conclusion of the SFO’s investigation clearly demonstrates the harm this type of investment fraud has on victims and the SFO’s ability and determination to bring criminals to justice.”

In August 2013, the men were charged along with a fourth individual, former Sustainable AgroEnergy financial controller Fung Fong Wong. He was acquitted last week.

In March 2012, Money Marketing reported Southwark Crown Court had issued a freezing order on assets held by Sustainable Growth Group and its subsidiaries after a request from the SFO.

The Sustainable Growth Group of companies was placed into administration in March 2012.

Chantrey Vellacot insolvency partner Adrian Hyde says: “In our role as management receivers we are continuing our work to recover assets in Cambodia and the Philippines. We hope the conclusion of the court proceedings will aid the process of resolving what has already been a long and extremely complex case.”

Timeline

  • February 2012: Southwark Crown Court issues a freezing order on assets held by Sustainable AgroEnergy, Sustainable Wealth Investments and Sustainable Growth Group after a request from the SFO
  • March 2012: Sustainable Growth Group enters administration and the SFO appoints administrators to wind it up. Money Marketing reveals 1,500 Sipp investors are facing losses of up to £23m 
  • August 2013: Four men are charged with conspiracy to commit fraud: former Sustainable AgroEnergy director and chief commercial officer Gary West, former Sustainable AgroEnergy chief executive James Whale, former Sustainable AgroEnergy financial controller Fung Fong Wong, and Stuart Stone, an IFA associated with the company.
  • December 2014: Three men – West, Whale and Stone – are convicted of conspiracy to commit fraud.
basi

Adviser views

Michael Basi
Managing director
Basi & Basi Financial Planning

The old principle still stands: if you and your adviser don’t understand an investment and how it is making money, then you should walk away. If the client insists, you have to tell them they will need to go elsewhere, even if that means losing a valued client.

palfrey

Craig Palfrey
Certified financial planner
Penguin Wealth

Cases like this are shocking and I am at a loss to explain why advisers and other individuals get involved with schemes like this. This sort of thing still goes on and something must be done by Sipp providers and the regulator to stop pension funds being invested in this way.

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