Former JJB Sports boss convicted of taking £1m in backhanders

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Chris Ronnie, the former boss of JJB Sports, has been found guilty of accepting more than £1m in backhanders from suppliers.

The 52-year-old faces up to 10 years in jail after he was convicted of taking three cash payments from suppliers to the retail chain – which was once Britain’s biggest sportswear retailer but collapsed into administration in 2012. Some of the cash was used to buy property in Florida.

Ronnie was found guilty on three counts of fraud and two of furnishing false information after proceedings that lasted more than two months. He refused to give evidence in the trial, which followed an investigation by the Serious Fraud Office.

In comments that appeared to suggest Ronnie would be sent to jail, Judge Nicholas Loraine-Smith said: “I’m granting you bail to give you an opportunity to get your affairs in order.”

Prosecutors will now also seek to bar Ronnie from acting as a company director.

The fraud came to light after JJB executives called in the Office of Fair Trading in 2009 – in exchange for immunity – to investigate the possibility that the chain had fixed prices on football shirts with rival Sports Direct, the sportswear firm run by the Newcastle United owner Mike Ashley, when Ronnie was at the helm.

Ronnie spent only 18 months as chief executive of JJB, during which time its share price collapsed from more than £2 to less than 3p, feeding suspicions that he was undermining the business to benefit Sports Direct, where he had previously worked. Ashley was never implicated in any wrongdoing.

The OFT asked for the SFO’s assistance in its investigation and it later emerged that the inquiry had widened to suspected fraud. At the time the fraud was committed, in 2007 and 2008, Ronnie owed an Icelandic bank more than £11m. He had borrowed it to acquire a 29% stake in JJB in 2007 alongside another investor. He then took charge of the company.

Ronnie was sacked as chief executive in early 2009 after it emerged he had lost control of his stake in JJB during the Icelandic banking crisis but had not notified the company.

At Southwark crown court on Thursday, Ronnie was found to have worked with David Ball, owner of the JJB supplier Fashion & Sport, and with David Barrington, who with Ball was involved in a sports goods supplier called Performance Brands, to create false loan deals.

Jurors heard that Ronnie’s company Seacroft received a payment of £650,000 in February 2008 from Performance Brands and then $380,000 (about £197,000) from Fashion & Sport in June of that year. A third payment, again from Fashion and Sport, was made to Ronnie later that year, this time of $250,000 (about £134,000).

When Ronnie was interviewed by the SFO, he claimed that the payments were loans for him and his wife, Helen, to buy “a very nice property” in Florida. The court found that the loans were in fact private payments to Ronnie made without the knowledge of JJB’s board of directors.

Evidence of the loans emerged in emails to Ball and Barrington. They were both found guilty of perverting the course of justice.

After the SFO knocked at their door, they asked a computer engineer to wipe any trace of emails crucial to the investigation and ordered a misleading report. But the engineer kept a copy of all the emails and later handed them to the SFO, giving it explosive evidence of how the two men had tried to cover their tracks.

The jury cleared Ball of two counts of supplying false information and were discharged from considering a further count of the same charge after failing to reach a verdict.

Miranda Moore, acting for the prosecution, said Ronnie had failed to disclose to JJB’s board of directors that he had a financial interest in the deals.

“On none of the three occasions did he go to his board of directors and say: ‘Gentlemen, I know we are doing business with this company but you should know I have received this money and this money and this money’.

“Mr Ronnie had a number of opportunities to say: ‘Look, I’m going to do this’ and tell them all about it. He never took that opportunity because he wanted to keep the money for himself,” Moore said.

All three men will be sentenced on 12 December.

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Sarah Butler, for The Guardian on Thursday 20th November 2014 16.50 Europe/London

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