A court has been told how a south Armagh farmer was “acting under significant pressure” when he allowed his property to be used in fuel laundering.
Francis Gregory, 49, of Foxfield Road, Crossmaglen, was handed down a six-month suspended sentence after he was convicted in May of a charge of possession of a shed and equipment used in fuel laundering.
The charge related to a search of his farmland by HM Revenue and Customs on August 12, 2014.
Prosecution lawyer Geraldine McCullough said the total loss to the public purse over the fuel laundering plant was £10,472.
She told Judge Patricia Smyth that during the search, officers recovered more than 18,000 litres of contaminated fuel along with a further 1,300 litres of waste.
Ms McCullough said that the estimated cost of dismantling this illegal plant amounted to £14,398.
Newry Crown Court, sitting in Belfast, heard that the prosecution had dropped plans to bring confiscation proceedings against Gregory.
The prosecutor said the maximum penalty for possessing articles in connection with fuel fraud was five years in prison.
The judge heard that two of Gregory’s co-accused, who were described as being “much higher up the food chain and had a more hands-on role” in the operation, had pleaded guilty to fraudulent evasion of duty.
One received a 12-month sentence suspended for two years while the other received an enhanced combination order of 80 hours community service and two years on probation.
Ms McCullough said there were no aggravating factors in the case and Gregory had no previous criminal record.
Defence barrister Des Fahy said that the “level of culpability of the other two men was greater’’ as they were charged with fraudulent evasion of duty and were “involved in the workings of the plant”.
He said married father-of-five Gregory told a consultant psychiatrist after his conviction the reason why he had become involved in allowing his premises to be used in fuel laundering.
Said Mr Fahy: “It is clear there was a significant level of pressure, and an existing pressure, on this man culminating in what can be said is a forced use of his premises.
“This was significant and sustained pressure, both to him and to other family members. That situation continues up to the present.’’
Judge Smyth said it was clear that the “custody threshold had been passed’’ and sentenced him to six months in prison.
However, she said that given his “significant health difficulties’’ and that he was assessed as a low risk of reoffending, she had decided to suspend the sentence for 12 months.