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Shipston men face jail over football club fraud

Stephen Murrall and Peter Harris.
Stephen Murrall and Peter Harris.

A SHIPSTON businessman and a builder who stripped the gate receipts from a struggling football club’s home games before defrauding a business contact to replace it, are facing jail terms.

Stephen Murrall and Peter Harris were trying to convince the Football League they were ‘fit and proper persons’ to take over Hartlepool United, at the time of their fraudulent activity.

It was one of a series of frauds Murrall had carried out, two of which also involved Harris, Warwick Crown Court has heard.

Murrall, 49, of Mill Court, Shipston-on-Stour, had denied five charges of fraud, while Harris, 47, of Compton Court, Watery Lane, Shipston-on-Stour, had denied three of the charges.

But after almost 19 hours at the end of the five-week trial, the jury convicted Murrall of all five charges, one of them by a majority verdict, and Harris of two of the charges he faced.

Judge Sylvia de Bertodano adjourned the case for them to be sentenced with co-defendant Henry Kerr, 61, who lives in Wien, Germany, and has admitted the charges he faces.

Murrall and Harris were both granted bail until that hearing, which is due to take place in early November, with conditions of residence at their home addresses and that they surrender their passports and do not apply for travel documents.

Simon Hunka, for Murrall, said: “He will be under no illusions.

He knows exactly what will happen.”

And Judge de Bertodano told Harris’s barrister: “I don’t want him to take away any idea that it won’t be a custodial sentence.

That will be the overwhelming probability.”

Prosecutor Miranda Moore QC had said that in 2014, in a bid to take over Hartlepool United, then struggling in League Two, the two men set up a company called TMH 2014 Ltd, referencing the supporters’ nickname of the Monkey Hangers.

After agreeing to take over the club, which has since dropped into the National League, for a nominal £5, they had to show the League they were fit and proper persons to run the club.

But they immediately instructed Hartlepool’s finance officer that all future money from home matches, including gate receipts and the bar revenue should go into TMH’s bank account.

A total of £42,453 from the next two home games was paid into the TMH account, but did not stay there, and the League made enquiries, wanting to know the two men were good for the money.

They had to repay the club, but didn’t have the money, so in January 2015 they persuaded Jonathan Rehbein of the ESRG Group to loan them £50,000 over seven days at 20 per cent interest.

It was never repaid, and Mr Rehbein, ‘who had still not realised his £500,000 had gone west’ from one of Murrall’s earlier scams over a non-existent venture in Malta, was fobbed off with a succession of excuses.

Miss Moore had told the jury that Murrall was ‘a gambler in the true sense, spending tens of thousands of pounds, if not hundreds of thousands, betting online and losing online.’

“He’s organised several fraudulent schemes in an attempt to obtain money.

Sometimes he succeeded, and sometimes he didn’t.

“Mr Harris is a friend of Mr Murrell, and is a builder by trade, with no real experience of finance or running a company of any note.

He’s the clean name on company documents, put forward as the figurehead of the companies by Mr Murrall.”

The frauds came to light after Murrall was made bankrupt in 2015 and he had to hand over computer equipment, on which evidence was found which triggered an investigation.

In July 2014 Murrall had registered Phoebus Banbury Ltd, which was involved in setting up the Phoebus night club in the town and refurbishing the premises, for VAT.

Later that year Murrall asked Kerr to provide a false invoice for £120,000 plus VAT of £24,000 – which was submitted as part of a fraudulent claim for a £51,145 VAT refund.

Murrall told Kerr to delete their e-mail exchanges – but he failed to do so, and they were found during the investigation.

Also in 2014 Murrall had contacted the ESRG Group, which provides financial structuring for overseas projects, claiming that Phoebus Funding Solutions was involved in large-scale clean energy projects in Malta.

Murrall was the CEO of Phoebus Funding Solutions, and he convinced Mr Rehbein at ESRG that they had a contract signed by Dr Christian Cardona on behalf of the Maltese government.

Mr Rehbein agreed to advance £500,000 after seeing a forged letter from accountancy giants Ernst and Young, supposedly underwriting the project.

Almost as soon as it went into the PFS account, it was taken out, with more than £160,000 going into Murrall’s personal accounts, and other money going to support the night club project.

And when the repayment and interest was due, Mr Rehbein was presented with a series of excuses and delaying tactics.

Harris was cleared of taking part in that, but both men were involved in a fraud in which First Capital Factors advanced money against a bogus invoices for £93,000 said to have been submitted by Phoebus Banbury Ltd to Avalon Investment Services.

Murrall also submitted false statements and invoices to HMRC between April 2015 and January last year, coming ‘within a whisker’ of fraudulently obtaining £854,290 in research and development payable tax credit.

Giving evidence, Murrall accepted creating the documents in relation to the £500,000 ‘Malta fraud’ loan, and forging Dr Cardona’s signature – but claimed: “My case is, I didn’t think I behaved dishonestly.

He also denied acting dishonestly when he got the Hartlepool gate receipts diverted, saying he believed he would be able to pay back the £50,000 loan.

And Harris said that although he was to be ‘the front man’ at Hartlepool, he ‘believed we were going to make a real go of it’ – and he claimed they had the gate receipts paid into the TMH account because there was ‘petty theft throughout the club.’

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