Paul Begley, aged 46, of Begley Brothers Ltd, based in Blanchardstown, avoided paying customs duty on more than 1,000 tonnes of garlic from China, by having them labelled as apples.
Dublin Circuit Criminal Court heard the import duty on garlic is “inexplicably” high and can be up to 232%. In contrast, onions have an import duty of 9%.
The maximum sentence is five years in prison or a fine of three times the value of the goods.
Judge Martin Nolan imposed the maximum term on one count and one year on another count. These are to run consecutively, meaning a total of six years.
“It gives me no joy at all to jail a decent man,” said Judge Nolan, who described Begley as a “success story”; an “asset to the country” in supporting the economy and providing employment.
He noted Begley’s generosity and that he donates money to homeless charities and the St Vincent de Paul.
However the judge added he had engaged in a “grave” and “huge” tax evasion scheme. The import tax on garlic “may or may not” be excessive, he said, but this was for the Oireachtas, and not individuals, to decide.
He said he had to impose a significant jail term because such offences are hard to uncover, therefore the only effective deterrence is lengthy prison terms.
Begley, of Woodlock, Redgap, Rathcoole, pleaded guilty to four sample counts of evading customs duty between Sept 2003 and Oct 2007. The total amount of garlic involved was 1,013 tonnes, worth €1.1m.
Revenue officer Denis Twohig told the court that the scam was uncovered on Oct 9, 2007 when customs officers at Dublin Port investigated a container that was supposed to contain 18 tonnes of apples and two tonnes of garlic.
When they looked inside they found 21 tonnes of garlic and no apples. Officer Twohig said the import duty on apples was 9% of the total value while the duty on garlic was €120 per kilogram and an additional 9.6% of the total value. The outstanding tax on this consignment alone was €25,000.
Following the find, revenue officers began an investigation into previous imports by the company. During a search of the headquarters, officers seized emails between Begley and his garlic supplier in China, exchanged over the course of four years. The emails told the supplier to falsify the importation documents to describe the shipments as apples rather than garlic.
The court heard Begley made full admissions and volunteered additional information.
He has been paying off debt over the last two years at €33,000 a month. A debt of €700,000 is outstanding.
Defence counsel David Keane SC said Begley is 18 years married and has three teenage children. He inherited the family business from his uncle and it has grown to be the largest producer and exporter of fruit and vegetables in Ireland and the fourth-largest distributor.
Counsel pleaded with Judge Nolan not to impose a custodial sentence and said his client was willing to pay any fine imposed.
He handed in character references detailing Begley’s charity work as well as an expert analysis of the “unique nature and level of duty on garlic”. He said the rate was “inexplicable” and 24 times that of onions.
The State disputed the term “inexplicable”, saying a detailed report had been provided, explaining the customs rate.