THE former chief executive of JJB Sports has been jailed for four years for pocketing £1 million in a “very greedy” fraud.
Scottish tycoon Christopher Ronnie, 52, was £11m in debt to an Icelandic bank when he took loans from two suppliers to the sportswear giant.
Ronnie then splashed out on a property in Florida.
But when the troubled Icelandic bank tried to recover its cash from Ronnie, he lied about his assets and liabilities, Southwark Crown Court in London heard.
The businessman was found guilty last month of fraud over three six-figure payments while at the helm of JJB Sports in 2008.
Judge Nicholas Loraine-Smith said Ronnie had gone to great lengths to cover his tracks. He said Ronnie’s post, taken up in 2007, “brought with it enormous responsibility to the employees and the shareholders”.
But “within months you were grossly abusing that position by embarking upon a course of conduct which was dishonest in the extreme,” he told Ronnie.
The judge said Ronnie had tried to bat off the allegations, telling police it was part of a “witch-hunt” against him.
The judge added: “I’m unable to see any sign of remorse or even embarrassment about what you have done. This was a flagrant and disgraceful breach of your duty as a CEO of a public limited company.
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“This was a particularly vulnerable period in the company’s history prior to its collapse.”
Business partners David Ball, 54, and David Barrington, 52, who worked for the firms that made the loans to Ronnie, were sentenced to 18 months in prison each for helping Ronnie cover his tracks. All three must serve at least half their sentence.
The case against the three cost the British taxpayer £630,000 – with Ronnie’s case costing £500,000 alone.
The fraud focused on three large loans of several hundred thousand pounds which Ronnie received from suppliers but failed to declare to the JJB board.
Ronnie, who lives in Wilmslow, Cheshire, and was chief of JJB Sports between August 2007 and March 2009, received the payments in 2008.
His company, Seacroft,
received £650,000 in February 2008 from supplier Performance Brands. That June, he received £197,000 from Fashion and Sport, another supplier. A third payment, again from Fashion and Sport, was made later that year, this time for £134,000.
Ronnie agreed to provide Icelandic bank Kaupthing Singer Friedlander with documents about his loans and assets as they pursued him for £11m.
However, he falsified the information about his assets and liabilities at a time when he bought shares in JJB Sports.
The court heard the fraud could have shaken the market’s trust in the company had it come to light at the time.
Self-made businessman Ronnie went from being able to raise £190m on the market to fund his stake in JJB, to being “broken financially”, his defence lawyer, Jim Sturman QC, said.
Mr Sturman said it had been a “hellishly difficult year” for Ronnie, who was left in financial straits following the economic crash.
He said: “He left school before he was 16 and by virtue of hard work and charisma he managed to build himself up to a position where he could borrow £190m to buy the stake in the company.
“The crash caught him unawares as it caught others unaware.”
Ball and Barrington covered up e-mails relating to the loans and asked a computer engineer to wipe any trace of them, the court heard. But the engineer was so concerned he contacted the Serious Fraud Office.
Prosecutor Miranda Moore QC said it was “sheer fluke” that he had the material and showed it to investigators.
Ronnie, who did not give evidence in his own defence, was convicted of three counts of fraud, and two of furnishing false information.
Ball from Surrey, was convicted of two counts of attempting to pervert the course of justice, as was Barrington, of Cheshire.
Ronnie was also banned from being a company director for eight years. Confiscation proceedings to claw back some of the costs of the case are expected to be launched.
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