THE Dublin fruit importer who was jailed for six years for passing off Chinese garlic as apples to avoid paying high customs costs will start his appeal tomorrow of a sentence that his family have described as "outrageous".
Paul Begley, from Rathcoole, Co Dublin, was sentenced in March after he admitted that he avoided paying €1.6m in garlic import duty. His appeal of his six-year sentence opens tomorrow in the Court of Criminal Appeal after the judges agreed to prioritise his case.
The severity of Begley's jail term prompted huge public debate about sentencing policy. It drew comparisons with the six months served by businessman Anthony Lyons for sexual assault after five and a half years of his sentence was suspended. It was also contrasted with the settlement independent TD Mick Wallace reached with the Revenue for under-declaring VAT returns.
Last week, former district court judge Heather Perrin embarked on a two-year prison term for trying to defraud her elderly client.
Begley is serving his sentence in the Mountjoy training unit, where it is believed he befriended Sean Quinn and his son Sean Jnr, who were both given jail terms for contempt of court. Sean Jnr, who served three months, worked in the prison kitchen washing pots while Begley worked in the tuck shop. His father, Sean Quinn, who was jailed last month, plays cards with Begley. Begley, 46, ran a fruit and vegetable import business in Blanchardstown that was one of the biggest in Ireland. His trial heard that garlic import duty was "inexplicably" high at up to 232 per cent while other fruit and vegetables had rates as low as nine per cent. He passed off 1,000 tonnes of garlic as apples.
Begley confessed to the scam when the authorities discovered it. He made monthly payments of €33,000 over the past two years to clear the €1.6m debt. At the time of his trial, the debt was down to €700,000.
Judge Martin Nolan acknowledged that Begley was a decent man, but that he had engaged in a "grave" and "huge" tax evasion scheme, and that such offences were hard to uncover. He said the only effective deterrent was a lengthy jail sentence.
Begley's sister, Aisling, wrote to Enda Kenny and Alan Shatter to protest at the "unjust" sentence. In correspondence, released under the FOI, she asked: "How can you both sit back and let this huge injustice proceed? How can a judge compare tax evasion to taking a life or sex abuse of a minor?