Horse researcher jailed for multiple frauds

A woman from Cheshire who set up a specialist horse research company has been jailed for four-and-a-half years after she defrauded a series of organisations to clear her debts and submitted £43,000 in false VAT returns

Dr Maria Leitner was sentenced at Chester Crown Court after she was convicted of three counts of fraud, as well as one count each for obtaining credit whilst bankrupt, failing to deliver assets to the Official Receiver and acting as a director whilst bankrupt.

The court heard that in 2005, Dr Leitner set up Equine Research & Information Centre Limited (ERIC).

In 2010, she wanted to buy specialist camera equipment and under the guise of ERIC applied for funds through a leasing company so that she could buy the cameras from a company based in the US, worth around $250,000 (£195,510).

But Dr Leitner dishonestly secured £297,000 – more than the equipment was worth – as she told the leasing company she was buying the camera equipment not from the firm in the US but from another company that she had falsely set-up.

The Insolvency Service said she did this to make the leasing company believe that this was a valid transaction for the larger amount. It also discovered that Dr Leitner submitted £43,412 worth of false VAT returns, while laundering the proceeds of one of these through an offshore account in Mauritius.

And once she received the funds, instead of paying the full amount due to the camera supplier, Dr Leitner used the money to clear some of her debts, including mortgage payments.

Dr Leitner did pay back more than £128,000 to the leasing company but when she stopped making payments, the leasing company applied to have her made bankrupt in 2012.

The camera supplier still had not released the equipment from storage in the UK as it had not received full payment. However, despite being restricted from borrowing money as a bankrupt, Dr Leitner illegally came to a credit agreement with the camera supplier so they could deliver the specialist cameras.

Dr Leitner then failed to pay back the full loan to the leasing company and following their petition to wind up ERIC, the research company was closed down in July 2012.

The Insolvency Service was brought in to carry out investigations and throughout the enquiries, Dr Leitner was uncooperative.

For example, when it came to recovering the specialist camera equipment, she handed over a small number of the cameras to the Official Receiver, while claiming that the rest had gone missing. But behind the scenes, Dr Leitner had kept back the majority of the cameras and software for her own purposes.

The judge in the case said Dr Leitner ‘set up a web of deceit’ and ‘there was sophistication and a lot of planning … over a sustained period of time’.

Arwel Jones, director of legal services for the Insolvency Service, said: ‘Dr Leitner may well have genuinely wanted to buy the camera equipment but this was unfortunately the start of her downfall. She told a series of lies to secure funds and once she received the money, Dr Leitner used it to pay off her debts.

‘From there on in she continued to defraud various organisations and even when it got to the point of our investigations, Dr Leitner continued to act deceitfully and dishonestly.

‘Four-and-a-half years is a significant sentence and we hope this sends a strong message that we will robustly investigate and bring criminal prosecutions if appropriate where people carry out fraudulent activities.’

Dr Leitner was previously disqualified as a director for 11 years by Macclesfield County Court in 2014 in connection with ERIC.

Report by Pat Sweet

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