Sunday 18 February 2018

Solicitor jailed for loans swindle

Fraud victim Vera McGrane (right) after the sentencing of former solicitor Thomas Byrne at the Criminal Courts of Justice in Dublin
Fraud victim Vera McGrane (right) after the sentencing of former solicitor Thomas Byrne at the Criminal Courts of Justice in Dublin
Former solicitor Thomas Byrne has been sentenced to 16 years in jail over a property loans swindle

A rogue solicitor has been handed a 16 year sentence for orchestrating a colossal 52 million euro (£43m) property loans swindle - the largest theft case in Irish history.

Thomas Byrne, of Mountjoy Square, Dublin, has lost his life, family and successful business since his plot came down around him like a house of cards six years ago, a court heard.

The 47-year-old separated father of three has also lost his dignity and respect after being exposed for transferring clients' homes into his own name and using them as security to obtain multi-million euro bank loans.

After being found unanimously guilty of 50 charges of theft, forgery and deception in a trial lasting six weeks, Judge Patrick McCartan told the Circuit Criminal Court in Dublin that Byrne's crimes were "staggering to consider".

"The scale of Mr Byrne's wrongdoing is colossal," he said.

In a years-long plot, which tumbled in 2007, Byrne had been secretly and illegally transferring title deeds from family homes into his own name - including those of his friends and even his old piano teacher.

Forged documents and signatures were used to acquire the houses without any knowledge by the owners, who only found out after a whistleblower alerted the Law Society.

The dozen properties were then used as collateral to secure multi-million euro loans from six banks at a time when the Irish property market was at "boiling point", the judge said.

While clients received some compensation for money directly lost to the struck-off solicitor, detective sergeant Pascal Walsh - who headed up the fraud investigation - said none had recovered the value wiped off their properties.

Prices for some of the houses involved had more than halved since the peak of the boom to the time they were legally returned to their rightful owners and put on the market.

Handing down the sentence, Judge McCartan dismissed Byrne's claim that he had not financially benefited from the elaborate scheme, pointing out that he had amassed a considerable property portfolio.

"It was all very cunning," the judge said.

The scam required careful planning and execution, Byrne had not helped the Garda investigation and almost nothing has been recovered, the court was told.

The judge added that he couldn't quantify the damage inflicted on the legal profession, as Byrne had abused every aspect of the great trust placed upon solicitors.

"It must be considerable," he said.

Byrne was given nine years for theft, another seven years for forgeries, to run consecutively, as well as a concurrent five year sentence for other deceptions.

The final four years were suspended on condition of his good behaviour on release.

Defence lawyer Damien Colgan said Byrne had lost everything.

"He is a man who has lost his profession, lost his life as such for the next number of years," the barrister said.

"He has lost his family - he has separated - he lost his dignity and respect, lost his practice."

Pleading for leniency, he said his client had descended into a spiral of drinking, desperation and hopelessness since his scheme unravelled in October 2007.

"Perhaps like a house of cards, it all collapsed in a matter of moments," he said.

After the sentencing, the Law Society said it had made compensation payments totalling 7.2 million euro (£6 million) to 153 of Byrne's clients.

However, the representative body said it could not compensate families for the value wiped off their homes as a result of the swindle.

"That is known as the consequential loss," said Ken Murphy, director general of the Law Society.

"The fact is that we operate under a statutory scheme, which can't provide compensation for that.

"We are not aware of any scheme which provides compensation for loss of value on a home - in other words the vagaries of the market."

The court was told of one of Byrne's victims, where the house was getting offers for 420,000 euro (£347,000) but had eventually sold for 196,000 euro (£162,000).

The Law Society's compensation fund was set up to compensate any losses to clients because of a solicitor's dishonesty, through misappropriation of money or property entrusted to solicitor.

But Mr Murphy said that excludes compensation for consequential loss.

The Law Society spent another 1.1 million euro (£911,000) on administering and investigating claims in the case, including fees to consultants KPMG, said Mr Murphy.

Press Association

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