Harlequin chairman David Ames, the man behind a £226m SIPP-based fraud which hit 8,000 victims, was today jailed at Southwark Crown Court for 12 years.
The Serious Fraud Office carried out a multi-national investigation into the con which saw Mr Ames branded a “menace” by the judge.
Many of the victims, some of them elderly, lost pensions and life savings by investing in Harlequin’s bogus luxury property schemes in the Caribbean.
The indictment period for the case of 2010 – 2013 saw investors lose £226m, however the SFO said that over the seven year course of the scheme investor losses totalled an estimate £398m.
Mr Ames was convicted in August and sentenced today.
Victims lost pensions and life savings after being conned into believing that their money would be invested in holiday properties in St Vincent and the Grenadines, St Lucia, Barbados and other Caribbean countries.
The SFO said that, in reality, the scheme had no external funding and never delivered what was promised. Almost no properties were ever constructed and 99% of those who invested made no return.
Mr Ames sold investments via SIPPs to a large number of people before regulations were tightened in 2012. The SFO said many victims were elderly with little investing experience.
Many of the investors were forced to delay their retirement, having lost their pensions and life savings. The SFO said that many victims continue to struggle with hardship today, with some having to remortgage their homes and continue to repay outstanding debts.
The court was told that some victims had suffered breakdowns in relationships, rifts within families, stress, anxiety and depression.
The SFO said that Mr Ames offending was “aggravated” by a failure to respond to at least eight warnings about the Harlequin businesses from business associates, financial professionals and authorities. He was also found to have wrongly attempted to place the blame on his associates and lied to investors on numerous occasions.
SFO investigators found that Mr Ames had enriched his family by £6.2m through the Harlequin Group. He and his family took frequent holidays to exotic destinations, travelled in business class and stayed in expensive hotels. He even employed a personal chauffeur.
Judge Hehir told Mr Ames: “You were clearly far more interested in pocketing investors’ money than in ensuring those investors were getting what they were paying for.”
“You were a slick and plausible salesman and thoroughly dishonest with it…You are a menace to anybody unfortunate enough to do business with you.”
He went on to praise a “thorough and diligent investigation” by the SFO.
Separately, Mr Ames has also been disqualified as a company director for 15 years.
Lisa Osofsky, director, Serious Fraud Office, said: “Those who are trusted with investors’ money have a fundamental duty to safeguard the interests of those investors.
“As today’s sentencing shows, we will not tolerate those who abuse that trust, show contempt for their victims and the law and squander other people’s money for their own gain.”
Complaints about Harlequin began to emerge a decade ago and in 2013 the FCA issued a warning about the firm’s advisers approaching investors who might have received redress from the Financial Services Compensation Scheme (FSCS), to encourage them to invest in Harlequin property.
The FCA warned at the time that, as a property firm, Harlequin itself was not regulated although it may have dealt with regulated advisers. The FCA said it had seen an increasing number of SIPPs investing in overseas property, including through Harlequin.