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Investor in 'scam' probe given top business award by Cowen

THE Frenchman suspected of operating a cross-border investment scam that has left dozens of people high and dry was presented with an award by Taoiseach Brian Cowen in honour of his business acumen.

Last Friday, a judge in Belfast jailed Francois de Dietrich for 18 months in his absence, and a warrant was immediately issued for his arrest. He was jailed for breaching a number of court orders relating to the investment scheme, including an order to divulge his assets.

Less than two years ago, the businessman who set up home in Ballybofey, Co Donegal, was pictured with Mr Cowen at a gala dinner in the Mansion House in Dublin where he was commended for his business acumen.

Accepting the 'emerging new business' award for his company, ETIC Solutions, de Dietrich proudly boasted of its "innovative approach".

But a "get-rich" investment scheme added to its list of business activities two years ago proved to be its downfall.

The Frenchman moved to Ballybofey with his family about eight years ago, claiming to have 25 years of hotel consultancy behind him.

He set about establishing a restaurant chain, a specialised chef recruitment agency, a French language school, event management and a public relations agency, all under the umbrella of ETIC solutions.

He spotted a way to make money in the middle of a recession by buying stock from bankrupt companies and selling it on for a profit. He invited investors to put up the capital and promised them substantial returns. His public profile and track record helped secure investors.

He was highly enough thought of in his adopted county to be elected president of the Letterkenny branch of the Lion's Club.

Across the border in Derry, he sponsored the City of Derry rugby club and frequently showed up for matches and functions.

But the Financial Services Authority became suspicious about the transactions involved in the company and began court action against de Dietrich last autumn. That resulted in an injunction banning him and ETIC Solutions from taking any more investments. He was ordered to freeze £6.8m (€7.9m) in assets, a ceiling that was later raised to £20.2m.

Dozens of people on both sides on the border have been clamouring to get their money back.

The sums involved are thought to range from several thousand euro to hundreds of thousands.

Donegal investors are thought to range from investors seeking a quick return, to small business owners and pensioners investing their savings.

The Garda National Bureau of Fraud Investigation is looking into eight complaints about the scheme and two men have taken High Court action against his company, ETIC Solutions, which has shut down with the loss of half-a-dozen jobs.

De Dietrich has promised investors they will get their money back. He recently issued a statement through his solicitor saying the FSA's action in freezing his bank accounts left him unable to trade and led to the loss of many jobs.

Ordering his imprisonment in Belfast last week, Mr Justice Deeny said he believed de Dietrich's actions in failing to provide the information requested of him were a deliberate contempt of "legitimate requests" for information from the FSA.

"He has taken deposits from persons in the United Kingdom, and quite clearly the neighbouring jurisdiction of the Republic of Ireland as well, when he had no licence to do so," the judge said.

Sunday Independent