Three convicted in £23m biofuel fraud

Three directors were convicted on Friday (5 December) as part of the Serious Fraud Office’s investigation into Sustainable Growth Group’s £23m fraud between April 2011 and February 2012.

Gary Lloyd West, former director and chief commercial officer of SGG subsidiary Sustainable AgroEnergy plc, James Brunel Whale, former director, chief executive and chairman of SGG and Stuart John Stone, director of SJ Stone Ltd, which was a sales agent of unregulated pension and investment products was also convicted of conspiracy to commit fraud, conspiracy to furnish false information, fraudulent trading and Bribery Act 2010 offences at Southwark Crown Court.

The SFO’s criminal investigation focused on the selling and promotion of investment products based on “green biofuel” Jatropha tree plantations in Cambodia. The products were sold to UK investors primarily via self-invested pension plans.

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These investors were deliberately misled into believing that SAE owned land in Cambodia, that the land was planted with Jatropha trees, and that there was an insurance policy in place to protect investors if the crops failed.

David Green, director of the SFO, explained that the three individuals “preyed on investors”, and as a result, many lost life-changing amounts of money.

Mr West’s and Mr Stone’s charges and convictions under the Bribery Act 2010 are the first to be secured by the SFO since it came into law in July 2011.

The convicted defendants will be sentenced at Southwark Crown Court today (8 December). The SFO said it will pursue confiscation orders against all three.

Adrian Hyde, insolvency practitioner and solicitor at SGG’s management receiver Chantrey Vellacott, said the outcome vindicated the stance taken by the SFO in bringing this case to court.

“In our role as management receivers we are continuing our work to recover assets in Cambodia and the Philippines and we hope the conclusion of the court proceedings will aid the process of resolving what has already been a long and extremely complex case.”

Omar Qureshi, head of anti-corruption at law firm CMS, called the case an important success for the SFO and the Bribery Act.

“This is the first case involving a conviction under the section two offence of requesting or accepting a bribe as an improper inducement.

“While not the judgment that corporates and practitioners are waiting for - that is, a case interpreting the more complex and controversial offences involving companies - the SFO has taken an important step forward in demonstrating its ability to police the Bribery Act and in showing that the offences under the Act can be used successfully to pursue those who set up complex frauds to hide their wrongdoing.”