Ex-JJB Sports boss goes to jail for 4 years over £1m fraud

THE former chief executive of JJB Sports has been jailed for four years for pocketing £1 million in a “very greedy” fraud.

Former JJB Sports chief executive Christopher Ronnie
Former JJB Sports chief executive Christopher Ronnie

Christopher Ronnie, 52, was £11 million in debt to an Icelandic bank when he took money from two suppliers to the sportswear giant.

The Scottish tycoon used some of the cash to splash out on property in the “sunshine state” of Florida in America.

But when the troubled Icelandic bank tried to recover its cash, Ronnie lied about his assets and liabilities, Southwark Crown Court in London heard.

The charismatic businessman was found guilty last month of fraud over three six-figure cash payments when he was at the helm of the now defunct JJB Sports in 2008.

Judge Nicholas Loraine-Smith said Ronnie had embarked on a “very greedy” fraud and went to great lengths to cover his tracks. He said Ronnie took up his post as chief executive in 2007 which “brought with it enormous responsibility to the employees and the shareholders”.

But “within months you were grossly abusing that position by embarking upon a course of conduct which was dishonest in the extreme.

“Over a period of nine months they gave you just under £1 million.

“You hid the fact they had paid you those sums because you wanted to keep your position as CEO and keep the money, and spend it as you did, mainly on the house.

“You had to disguise the real reason for the receipt of that money, you went to great lengths to do so.”

The judge said Ronnie had tried to bat off the allegations, telling police it was part of a “witch-hunt” against him.

The judge added: “I’m unable to see any sign of remorse or even embarrassment about what you have done.

“This was a flagrant and disgraceful breach of your duty as a CEO of a public limited company.

“This was a particularly vulnerable period in the company’s history prior to its collapse.”

Business partners David Ball and David Barrington - who worked for the firms which made the loans - were sentenced to 18 months in prison each for helping Ronnie cover his tracks. All three must serve at least half their sentence.

The suited trio all looked relaxed and stared straight ahead with passive expressions as the sentences were read out.

The case against the three men cost the British taxpayer £630,000 - £500,000 on Ronnie’s case alone.

The fraud focused on three large loans of several hundred thousand pounds which he received from suppliers, but failed to declare to the JJB board.

Ronnie, who lives in Wilmslow, Cheshire, and was chief executive of JJB Sports between August 2007 and March 2009, received the payments in 2008.

His company, Seacroft, received £650,000 in February 2008 from supplier Performance Brands. That June he received 380,000 US dollars (about £197,000) from Fashion and Sport, another supplier.

A third payment, again from Fashion and Sport, was made to Ronnie later that year, this time of 250,000 US dollars (about £134,000).

Ronnie owed £11 million to Icelandic bank Kaupthing Singer Friedlander, and agreed he would provide it with documents about his loans and assets. But he falsified information about his assets and liabilities over these loans when he bought shares in JJB Sports.

The court heard that the fraud could have shaken the market’s trust in the company had it come to light at the time.

Prosecutor Miranda Moore QC said: “One cannot pin a fiscal health on a company which, by anyone’s point of view, was going through tough times.

“But Mr Ronnie was trusted and hailed as this new and brilliant leader.”

Self-made businessman Ronnie went from being able to raise £190 million on the market to fund his stake in JJB, to being a man “broken financially”, his defence lawyer, Jim Sturman QC, said.

Mr Sturman said it had been a “hellishly difficult year” for Ronnie, who was left in financial straits following the economic crash.

He said: “He left school before he was 16 and by virtue of hard work and charisma he managed to build himself up to a position where he could borrow £190 million to buy the stake in the company.

“And the crash caught him unawares as it caught others unaware.”

Ball, 54, and Barrington, 52, covered up emails relating to the loans and asked a computer engineer to wipe any trace of the emails, the court heard. But the engineer was so concerned that he contacted the Serious Fraud Office.

Ms Moore said it was “sheer fluke” that he had the material and showed it to investigators.

Ronnie, who did not give evidence in his own defence, was convicted of three counts of fraud, and two of furnishing false information.

Ball, 54, from Sutton, Surrey, was convicted of two counts of attempting to pervert the course of justice, as was Barrington, 52, from Sale, Cheshire.

Ronnie was also banned from being a company director for eight years. Confiscation proceedings to claw back some of the costs of the case are expected to be launched.

• JJB’s former executive chairman, who lives in Ilkley, will no longer face trial due to ill-health. Sir David Jones, who has Parkinson’s disease, went on trial at Leeds Crown Court earlier this year, accused of forging a bank statement to disguise the fact that he had borrowed large amounts of money, but this had to be abandoned due to his health problems.

He was due to go on trial again next year but a judge at the same court was told today that the Attorney-General’s office had stepped in to stop the proceedings.

Prosecutor Miranda Moore QC said the Attorney-General had made the decision after considering Sir David’s medical position.

Judge Guy Kearl QC said he agreed with the decision.

Sir David’s son Stuart will still go on trial in March next year.

The case involves allegations about cash borrowed by Sir David from JJB founder Dave Whelan and from Mike Ashley, the billionaire owner of the Sports Direct chain and owner of Newcastle United football club.

Prosecutors said Sir David lied about both loans to the board of JJB Sports and, as a result, the company put out misleading statements at a time when it was trying to raise £100 million on the financial markets.

They say the businessman forged a bank statement with the help of his son, Stuart.

Sir David had denied two charges of making a misleading statement, contrary to the Financial Services and Markets Act 2000, and one of using a false instrument, contrary to the Forgery and Counterfeiting Act 1981.

Stuart Jones, who denies one charge of aiding and abetting his father’s use of a false instrument, will go on trial on March 9 next year at Leeds Crown Court.