AN IRISH businessman has been fined over €1m after he attempted to smuggle four tonnes of cigarettes to "settle his company's debts".
Kenneth McKeon (31) claimed in a French court that he had his "back to the wall" as he owned Irish banks €52,000
He has been sentenced to two years in prison with 19 months suspended by a French court.
As he had already spent just over four months in jail, the truck driver was allowed to travel back to Ireland yesterday.
McKeon was arrested on April 3, 2009, in Cherbourg, in Normandy, when French Customs discovered 4.32 tonnes of cigarettes hidden amongst vegetables in his lorry.
It is understood that McKeon was given the illegal load in Antwerp, Belgium.
The vehicle was about to board a ferry to Ireland when officers climbed over crates of carrots, salads and onions, which almost reached the ceiling of the truck.
They eventually found large boxes of "duty-free" cigarettes, behind 12 pallets of food. The contraband was estimated to be worth around €1m.
McKeon, who is originally from Sligo, blamed the downturn for his actions.
The Irish native explained that he never intended to sell the load himself, he was only meant to act as a "mule" and receive €8,000 for completing the journey.
"Mr McKeon felt that he had no other choice, his truck driving company started losing money in 2008 when the financial crisis hit Europe so he agreed to complete this trip," his lawyer Veronique Carre told the Herald.
She added that her client's fine was very high.
"A fine of ¤1,080,000 does not make any sense [and it could] get my client [to pursue further] illegal activities."
Despite his claims that the illegal transaction was brought about by his difficult financial situation, French authorities discovered that McKeon had already been involved in the smuggling of 12 cigarette cartons and one kilo of loose tobacco in 2006.
In 2010, French Customs seized 350 tonnes of cigarettes worth over €81m, as well as 32 million fake cigarettes.
Most of their operations target big fraud organisations, who smuggle five tonnes or more of contraband per trip and tend to originate in Belgium or Luxembourg.