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Boss gets six years for pounds 20 m swindle.

Byline: Melvyn Howe

A computer company chief who turned to crime to build a dream castle was jailed for six years yesterday for her part in a pounds 20 million VAT swindle.

Ferrari-owner Bernadette Devine (34), and her 'playboy' accomplice Daniel O'Connell (47), spent years building up illicit bank balances as they disguised large consignments of computer chips to look like legitimate exports.

The pair - helped, the prosecution said, by former Irish Government Minister Michael Keating - traded behind an elaborate and sophisticated smokescreen of bogus paperwork, front companies and misleading travel arrangements.

As the money rolled in from what is believed to be the largest fraud of its kind to come before an English court, the pair turned their thoughts to enjoying the fruits of their 'truly massive' dishonesty, London's Middlesex Guildhall Crown Court was told.

While O'Connell bedecked his mistress with diamonds from royal jewellers Asprey and Garrard and planned a life of luxury in the sun, Devine set her sights on building a castle-come-hotel and country club in her home village of Ballymote, in County Sligo in the Irish Republic.

But before Devine, a qualified nurse and one-time Tory councillor, could assume the mantle of a wealthy and respected hotelier, Customs officers discovered the scam and moved in.

Despite doubts over her mental stability halfway through her trial - with two psychiatrists deciding that she was psychotic, but another pair insisting she was fine - Devine, of Empire Road, Perivale, north London, was found fit to plead and the case continued.

Following nearly 16 hours of deliberations over five days, during which Devine sacked her defence counsel, Harry de Silva QC, and her solicitors, the jury of six men and six women convicted her of five counts of tax evasion between February 1996 and March 1999.

Passing sentence Judge William Rose said the swindle had been rightly described by the prosecution as 'truly massive', adding: 'Indeed it may well be that it was the largest VAT fraud that has been tried in this country.'

Apart from the fact they had made 'enormous profits', there was 'compelling evidence' that, had she and O'Connell not been arrested when they were, they would have pocketed further millions. Her accomplice, O'Connell, of Catherine Street, Limerick, who also headed a number of computer companies, has already been dealt with.

He was found guilty by jury last summer of five counts of tax evasion and jailed for eight years.

Both trials were told that former Dublin Lord Mayor Mr Keating, a member of the Garrett Fitzgerald Government in the 1980s, also featured in the swindle.

Peter Rook, QC, prosecuting, alleged that Mr Keating had been 'well involved', with two of his companies closely linked to O'Connell during the first part of the fraud. However, the jury that convicted O'Connell rejected his defence that the one-time politician had forced him into a life of crime.

Case officer Martin O'Neill later explained that the only reason Keating had not been in the dock as well was because 'fiscal crimes' were not included in the Anglo-Irish extradition agreement.

During the swindle O'Connell bought more than pounds 100 million of Pentium II processors and dressed them up as legitimate exports to a company Devine owned in Eire. Most of them never left Britain.
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Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Date:Jul 7, 2001
Words:543
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