‘Corrupt’ gang jailed for property repair scandal

Charles Owenson (left) and James Costello were sentenced yesterday.
Charles Owenson (left) and James Costello were sentenced yesterday.
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A SHERIFF branded a group of council officials and contractors “kindred corrupt spirits” as he jailed them for a total of 13 years yesterday.

Sheriff Michael O’Grady condemned Charles Owenson, James Costello, Kevin Balmer and Brendan Cantwell for their part in a long-running fraud scheme.

Former council officials Owenson and Costello took bribes from Balmer and Cantwell in exchange for repair contracts for publicly-owned buildings.

Sentencing the four men to prison, Sheriff O’Grady said their conduct was “the kind of deceit which eats away at public confidence in public administration in the most damaging way”.

He told them: “For a period of almost five years you acted together in this unholy alliance, in effect stealing from and manipulating the public purse, almost at will.”

He jailed Owenson for a four years and four months, while Owenson’s former property care services colleague Costello was ordered to serve three years and nine months.

Ex-directors of Action Building Contracts Balmer and Cantwell were handed sentences of two years and ten months and two years and three months respectively. They were also banned from being company directors for the next five years – putting an end to Cantwell’s directorship of a city-based scaffolding firm. The four men concocted a fraud scheme in which work orders were falsely inflated by almost £70,000, to fund the bribes for the council officials. On one occasion, Balmer added almost £1,000 to a council invoice for materials and labour given to Costello for free, when the cost was put on a bill for works carried out at Duddingston and North Leith churchyards in the city.

Cash would be handed over in envelopes and Owenson and Costello bought expensive cars – including an Audi and a Mercedes – in a futile attempt to conceal their ill-gotten gains.

The pair, who both worked in the now-defunct property care team, were also treated to around £30,000 of hospitality, including visits to lap-dancing clubs and football matches.

Sheriff O’Grady told them: “This was a fully formed, considered and careful arrangement. It may not have been a work of criminal genius but it was far from spontaneous and makeshift.”

He said their breach of trust was all the greater given the strain on council finances while it tried to maintain vital services.

He told the court: “Every penny piece Owenson and Costello spent on their lifestyles and every bribe added to every contract by Balmer and Cantwell was a penny piece which might have been available to an old people’s home or a nursery or a community centre. And well you would know that.”

Sentencing 62-year-old Owenson, Sheriff O’Grady told him that his attitude was “nothing short of remarkable”.

He said: “You have displayed not a hint of regret or contrition and appear to consider that the financial benefit you received is a trifling matter and that the whole thing could have been prevented if your line managers had done their job properly.”

Costello, 44, of Balerno, had pocketed £14,100 of cash bribes and had earlier admitted offences under the 1889 Public Bodies Corrupt Practices Act and proceeds of crime charges alongside Owenson.

At the height of its success, ABC was turning over more than £4million a year and employed more than 70 staff.

Balmer and Cantwell, both from Livingston, admitted forming the fraudulent scheme. Balmer, 52, also pleaded guilty to obtaining £22,600 by fraud.