‘We didn’t mean for you to stick it to him’

The reduction in the sentence for Paul Begley was welcomed far and wide.

Begley has come to be known as “the garlic man”, and his case has developed in some quarters over the last year as something of a cause célèbre. Yesterday, the Court of Criminal Appeal reduced his prison sentence for fraud from six years to two.

The case has been painful and worrying for his family, as any prison sentence would be for a man who has a young family, and had never, by the age of 46, previously come to the attention of the gardaí.

However, far more interesting than the original case, or even the details of the elaborate fraud, was the reaction his initial sentence generated. It should be pointed out that widespread outrage against the harshness of a prison sentence is highly unusual in a democracy.

Begley was managing director of the family business, Begley Brothers, one of the State’s largest importers of fruit and vegetables. His crime was to avoid import duties on garlic by re-labelling boxes as apples. This persisted for at least four years between 2003 and 2007, and avoided duties of €1.6m. (The import duty into the EU on garlic is particularly high).

This wasn’t a one-off slip of moral judgment. It wasn’t the last throw of the dice for an entrepreneur whose business was going down the tubes. It was, instead, a crime of greed, in which the perpetrator defrauded the Revenue, swiped an illegal edge with his competitors, and sold the garlic on the basis of the heavy duty which he was not paying.

Those who rushed to Begley’s defence attempted to portray the crime as striking out in frustration against a high tax. The reality is it was nothing more than greed.

When Revenue uncovered the fraud, Begley held up his hands, co-operated, repaid most of the money, and pleaded guilty. This was portrayed as him admitting his crime, but he only did so after he was caught.

Despite the mitigating circumstances, Judge Martin Nolan handed down the maximum sentence of five years, with another year to be served concurrently. He framed his ruling in the context of how difficult it was to uncover this kind of fraud — the Revenue officials had just got lucky — and in a recent ruling from the Court of Criminal Appeal on white-collar crime.

He said it gave him no pleasure to jail “a decent man”, but still, the lack of mitigation in his sentence was notable.

Yet, in the worlds of media, business, and politics, many didn’t regard the sentence as harsh but actually ludicrous.

Soon after the initial sentencing, Begley’s sister, Aishling, wrote to Taoiseach Enda Kenny demanding a meeting with him and the Minister for Justice. “There has been huge public outcry in protest against Judge Martin Nolan’s outrageous sentence,” she wrote on Mar 21.

Typical of much of the reaction was a comment piece from columnist Andrew Lynch in the Evening Herald. “The mind boggles,” he wrote.

“There are bankers who cost this country billions, priests who raped children and politicians who took massive backhanders all safely walking the streets of Ireland today.

“Meanwhile, a man has received a six-year jail sentence at the Dublin Circuit Criminal Court for the heinous crime of underpaying customs duty on imported garlic. There may be some zany logic behind this — but as far as most ordinary people are concerned, it’s yet another example of how our legal system seems to be completely divorced from reality.”

This was a theme repeated throughout the year. Those who purported to speak on behalf of “ordinary” people saw the sentence as crazy. Comparisons with sentencing for violent crime were repeatedly made, but this is like comparing apples to garlic. Without the deterrent of prison, white-collar crime is reduced to nothing more than a monetary gamble.

The one valid comparison, which few bothered to make, was with the case Judge Nolan had referenced from the appeal court. Paul Murray had been convicted the previous year of an elaborate social welfare fraud that yielded him €248,000.

Murray, 64, pleaded guilty in Jul 2011 at Mullingar Circuit Court and was sentenced to 12-and-a-half years in prison. There was no outcry following such a harsh sentence for a man of advanced years. Nobody suggested that his term was the same as those at the upper range of rape, which would involve aggravated violence, and inflicting terror on a defenceless woman.

In January last year, Murray’s sentence was reduced to nine years, still a considerable term for a man of pensionable age. No politician kicked up over Murray’s case, but more than a few rushed to decry the fate that had befallen Begley. On RTÉ’s Today with Pat Kenny, Senator Darragh O’Brien described the sentence last month as “a miscarriage of justice”.

Mr O’Brien, a Fianna Fáil member of the Oireachtas, was commenting on a criminal case that had not yet run its course. He was describing a case in which a self-confessed fraudster had been jailed as “a miscarriage of justice”, as if elements of the State had, for some nefarious reason, conspired to throw this man in prison. Those who have been victims of miscarriage of justice, might well have felt insulted to be bracketed with a self-confessed fraudster.

Those comments were typical of many being thrown around like confetti. What it demonstrated is the brittle attitudes towards white-collar crime, particularly in the power centres of politics, media and business. Despite reams of righteous indignation, it appears to be a pick ‘n’ mix menu as far as many are concerned. Going after bankers, or anybody associated with the economic collapse, is OK in today’s environment, and throwing away the key on conviction would be well received. But the same doesn’t apply to a man to whom many in the power centres can relate.

The comment around Begley’s sentence sounded like a voice rising up from these centres, proclaiming: “No, not him. We didn’t mean for you to stick it to him. He’s one of us.”

The other message to come from the protest was even more straightforward. Prison, as far as many in the middle- class are concerned, should largely be reserved for those of the lower orders, unless extreme violence is involved.

So two cheers for the justice dispensed at the Court of Criminal Appeal yesterday.

A harsh sentence, not an outrageous one, was reduced. The whole experience will ensure Begley is highly unlikely to re-offend. His family can welcome him home a lot sooner. But the din created around the case shows justice is a highly subjective matter, particularly when it comes to those who, at whatever remove, have access to power.

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