Garlic importer's sentence reduced to two years

Updated: Friday, 15 Feb 2013 22:10

The Court of Criminal Appeal has ruled that businessman Paul Begley, who was jailed for six years for failing to pay import duty on garlic, should have his sentence reduced to two years.

Last month, the appeal court set aside the sentence, ruling it excessive.

Begley remained in custody pending further submissions last week on an alternative sentence.

In today's ruling, the three-judge appeal court said the offences were both notable and significant and constituted a significant infringement of criminal law.

They were carefully planned and involved premeditated acts of deception.

Therefore, the court ruled, an element or aspect of general deterrence "was appropriate to demonstrate the consequences of this type of behaviour".

In order to reflect the gravity of the offences, while crediting him with due weight for the "very significant mitigating features", the appropriate sentence was two years.

Begley has served almost a year of his sentence and with remission could be released in the coming months.

There were emotional scenes in court as Begley's family embraced him after the ruling was delivered. He has now returned to prison.

A spokesperson for the family said they were very happy with the ruling.

The court had previously ruled the sentence imposed last March was not proportionate and that the trial judge had erred in principle by failing to take into account mitigating factors.

Begley, 47, from Rathcoole in Dublin, was given the longest sentence ever handed down for this type of offence.

At an appeal hearing in December, his lawyers said the trial judge ignored his guilty plea and his offer to repay the tax.

Begley's tax evasion scheme was uncovered in 2007.

He had been importing garlic from China for a number of years and made huge savings on import tax by having it labelled as apples.

Begley reached a settlement with Revenue for €1.6m and pleaded guilty to four sample charges.

This morning, the court heard the amounts involved on those charges totalled just over €85,000.

The maximum sentence was five years or a €10,000 fine or three times the amount of tax involved.

In its judgment last month, the appeal court said the trial judge failed to give any explanation for imposing the maximum sentence of five years on one count.

Mr Justice Liam McKechnie said there was an error of principle by the trial judge in excluding mitigating factors.

The court said Begley's level of cooperation with investigators was if not unprecedented, then at the very higher end of such processes.

"In effect, the book of evidence was entirely supplied by the defendant", the judgment said.

Begley's guilty plea should merit serious consideration along with his offer of restitution, which was a material factor for mitigation.

His genuine remorse, an impressive list of testimonials and the fact that he had no previous convictions, was totally rehabilitated and unlikely to reoffend were all matters that should have been considered.

It was not open to the trial judge to impose the sentence that he did and the mitigating factors were either entirely overlooked or not properly valued.

The court set aside the six-year sentence and said it would hear submissions on an alternative sentence today.

Mr Begley's trial last year heard that tax on imported garlic was inexplicably high at more than 200%, while for other fruit and vegetables it was only 9%.

But the trial Judge Martin Nolan said the tax was not a matter for individuals to decide. He said it was a grave and huge tax evasion scheme and jailed him for six years.

During his appeal, senior counsel Patrick Gageby said Begley had cooperated fully with the investigation, had handed over all his files and had in effect been the architect of the prosecution case against himself.

He said the trial judge had ignored Begley's guilty plea, had ignored the fact that he had paid the tax, and had handed down a maximum sentence that should normally be reserved for the worst cases and the worst circumstances.

Opposing the appeal, counsel for the DPP said the amount involved - €1.6m - was at the highest end of the scale.

The offence was carried out for no reason other than greed and it gave Begley a competitive advantage over other businesses.