Man jailed over garlic tax scam

The head of Ireland’s largest fruit and vegetable producers has been jailed for six years for a €1

The head of Ireland’s largest fruit and vegetable producers has been jailed for six years for a €1.6 million scam involving the importation of garlic.

Paul Begley (46) of Begley Brothers Ltd, based in Blanchardstown, Co Dublin, avoided paying customs duty on over a thousand tonnes of garlic from China by having them labelled as apples.

Dublin Circuit Criminal Court heard the import duty on garlic is "inexplicably" high and can be up to 232 per cent. In contrast, onions have an import duty of 9 per cent.

The maximum sentence for the offence is five years in prison or a fine of three times the value of the goods.

Judge Martin Nolan imposed the maximum term on one count and one year on another count. These are to run consecutively, meaning a total of six years. "It gives me no joy at all to jail a decent man," Judge Nolan said.

He said Begley is a "success story" an "asset to the country" in supporting the economy and providing employment. He noted Begley's generosity and that he donates money to homeless charities and the St Vincent de Paul.

However, the judge added he had engaged in a "grave" and "huge" tax evasion scheme. The import tax on garlic "may or may not" be excessive, he said but that this was for the Oireachtas to decide and not individuals.

He said he had to impose a significant jail term because such offences are difficult to uncover and therefore the only effective deterrence is lengthy prison terms for those who are caught.

Begley of Woodlock, Redgap, Rathcoole pleaded guilty to four sample counts of evading customs duty between September 2003 and October 2007. The total amount of garlic involved 1,013 tonnes, worth €1.1 million.

Revenue Officer Denis Twohig told prosecuting counsel, Remy Farrell SC, that the scam was uncovered on October 9th, 2007 when customs officers at Dublin Port investigated a container that was supposed to contain 18 tonnes of apples and two tonnes of garlic. When they looked inside, they found 21 tonnes of garlic and no apples.

Mr Twohig said the import duty on apples is 9 per cent of the total value while the duty on garlic is €120 per kilo and an additional 9.6 per cent of the total value. The outstanding tax on this consignment alone was €25,000.

Following the find, Revenue Officers began an investigation into previous imports by the company. During a search of the headquarters, officers seized a series of emails between Begley and his garlic supplier in China which were exchanged over the course of four years. The emails told the supplier to falsify the importation documents to describe the shipments as apples rather than garlic.

The court heard Begley made full admissions and volunteered additional information during the investigation. He has been paying off debts over the last two years at €33,000 a month. A debt of €700,000 remains outstanding.

Defence counsel, David Keane SC, said Begley has been married for 18 years and has three teenage children. He inherited the family business and it has grown to the largest producer and exporter of fruit and vegetables in Ireland and the fourth largest distributor.

Counsel pleaded with Judge Nolan not to impose a custodial sentence and said his client is willing to pay any fine the court may impose. He handed in character references detailing Begley's charity work as well as an expert analysis of the "unique nature and level of duty on garlic".

He said the rate was "inexplicable" and 24 times that of onions.

The State disputed the term "inexplicable", saying a detailed report had been provided explaining the customs rate.