A CAR dealer friend of tragic socialite Katy French who evaded paying €86,500 tax on high-end vehicles during the Celtic Tiger years has avoided jail.
Lee Cullen (41) was given a two-year suspended sentence at Dublin Circuit Criminal Court and ordered to pay back the money he owes the State.
Cullen, of Starwood, Coolmine, Saggart, pleaded guilty to evading Vehicle Registration Tax on seven Range Rovers at the Vehicle Registration Office, Main Street, Tallaght, between February 13, 2006 and March 29, 2007.
He had originally denied the charges but changed his plea on the morning of his trial in November 2012.
Hugh Hartnett SC, defending, said Cullen owns a property in Spain valued at €495,000 which he intends to sell to repay the tax he owes.
The court heard that the contents of the house have already been sold for €15,000 and a cheque for this amount was handed over to the Criminal Assets Bureau yesterday.
Det Sgt Fergal Harrington of the Criminal Assets Bureau said Cullen was importing mostly new and some used high-end Range Rovers from the UK.
However, Cullen was presenting them at the VRT Centre in Tallaght as being the lower spec Range Rover HSE derivatives, which gave them a lower open market selling price and accordingly, a lower VRT.
The court heard that VRT is estimated at 30pc of the open market selling price, and that Cullen was avoiding paying between €6,000 and €8,000 in VRT per vehicle.
Cullen was arrested in May 2008 and initially denied any wrongdoing. Two car dealers who were jointly accused with Cullen were also before the courts. One got a suspended sentence while the other was found not guilty by direction of the judge.
Mr Hartnett said Cullen's business and his life have been “destroyed and shattered” as a result of his involvement with this crime and cited three different medical reports detailing his client's suicidal thoughts.
Cullen has said that he knew Katy French — who died after ingesting cocaine — after her car broke down and he loaned her a replacement vehicle.
Judge Patrick McCartan sentenced Cullen to two years in prison, but suspended the sentence in full on condition that he keeps the peace and is of good behaviour for two years.
Judge McCartan also ordered that €15,000 be paid to the CAB yesterday as compensation to the State, with the balance of the monies owed to be paid in 12 months.
He also warned Cullen that if he failed to comply with the conditions of his sentence, he will go to prison.
By Conor Gallagher and Jessica Magee