An alleged fraudster accused of ripping off hundreds of pensioners has been jailed after he failed to help former clients track down a missing £25 million.
Hundreds of victims saw their savings disappear after the collapse of Steve Long’s Universal Wealth Preservation Trust, the High Court heard.
They had been enticed into entrusting their money to his Ipswich-based firm by claims it could avoid their heirs’ inheritance being swallowed by care home fees and the taxman.
No criminal charges have been brought, but he is now facing 27 damages claims from families amidst what prosecutors say is ‘cogent evidence’ of a ‘massive fraud’.
In breach of his duties as a trustee, Mr Long is accused of using clients’ money to prop up his businesses and transferring millions abroad, where they have disappeared.
Despite claiming now to have little more than the clothes on his back and a push bike, he is alleged to own valuable properties in Mexico.
As part of the claims, he was ordered to provide information to help track down the missing money so that his former clients can try to get it back.
And after failing to do all that he was ordered, he has now been jailed by Mrs Justice Rose for eight months for 29 contempts of court.
‘The claimants want to know what has happened to the very substantial sums of money that they entrusted to Mr Long and his colleagues,’ she said.
‘In some cases, they handed over all of their savings. I am sure they are desperate to know what has happened and to see if it is possible to salvage any of that money.’
Mr Long ran several companies under the Universal Wealth umbrella, which held seminars at which potential clients were advised how to maximise their heirs’ inheritance.
The companies went under earlier this year and their base in Dencora House, Ipswich, where at one time 100 employees worked, now stands abandoned.
For the 27 claimants, barrister Oliver Hyam said there is ‘…cogent evidence that Long has perpetrated a massive fraud against hundreds of victims…’
‘Large sums of money…cannot be located by the settlors or beneficiaries of a number of trusts,’ he told the court.
‘The claimants now have compelling evidence that Long paid away at least £12.2m of trust money in the period from 19 June 2016 to 25 June 2018.
‘The overall scale of Long’s activity appears to be considerably larger than this because, for example, Long states that he paid approximately US$2.5m…to his HSBC account in Hong Kong in October/November 2015.
‘Moreover, Long’s activities commenced, on his evidence, no later than 2006. Overall, around £25m is thought to be missing.’
Mr Long has been investigated by police and, although he has not been charged and there are no live criminal proceedings, civil claims have begun.
His assets have been frozen and he appeared before Mrs Justice Rose to face allegations of breaching a number of court orders designed to assist ex-clients in recovering their money.
Most seriously, he had failed to provide bank statements which would show where the clients’ money went, and to disclose his assets worldwide.
But for Mr Long, Vivienne Tanchel said he was not in breach of some of the orders because he did not know about them and because much of the information sought is in the hands of police.
He also suffers from mental health difficulties, having attempted suicide earlier this year, which might have caused ‘forgetfulness’ about assets in Mexico, she told the judge.
Some of those fighting for return of savings entrusted to Steven Long’s Universal Wealth, outside High Court, December 14, 2018. From left to right: Angus McDonald, Pauline McDonald, Jenny Reynolds, Peter Stevens and Nigel Cryer
Giving evidence, Mr Long – who was not asked if he admits or denies the fraud allegation – said he did not know about the order for disclosure of his assets because of his mental health problems.
He had moved and was living in Arundel, West Sussex, and did not open the mail which arrived, he told the judge.
‘I just wasn’t in a state to be able to deal with anything,’ he said. ‘I hadn’t been for some time prior to that.’
Mr Hyam said Mr Long should have known his assets were frozen because his debit cards were blocked and any suggestion that he is merely forgetful is ‘nonsense’.
‘If you are suffering from depression, you don’t forget you own two properties in Mexico,’ he said.
He told the judge: ‘He falsely states that he owns no assets, other than a few personal possessions which are primarily clothing, a push bike and a few sundry items of little to no value.
‘There is overwhelming evidence that he owns assets in other jurisdictions, including but not limited to property in Mexico, including affidavit evidence from [his wife] to this effect.’
He continued: ‘Long plainly could have complied with the orders – by compiling documents from third parties – or from memory.
‘It is inconceivable that he does not recall – broadly speaking – the accounts through which trust money flowed and where it ended up.
‘His failure to disclose this, and his apparent omissions on the question of his assets, is obviously contemptuous.’
Giving judgement, Mrs Justice Rose said she found Mr Long in contempt of court because of 29 breaches of the various orders.
‘I am sentencing Steven Peter Long to an immediate custodial sentence of eight months for contempt of court,’ she said.
Long was handcuffed in court in front of some of the former clients suing him and led out to start his sentence.
The claimants’ solicitor, Shivani Varma, of Kleyman and Co, said: ‘The committal of Mr Long to prison does not allow the claimants to recover their money, however we hope it will focus Mr Long’s mind to the fact that he cannot simply plead ignorance in a case where millions of pounds belonging to hundreds of elderly people have gone missing.
‘Mr Long’s committal to prison indicates just how serious the non-compliance of a freezing order is regarded by the courts.
‘If you have been served with a freezing order but choose not to read it and comply, that is not a sufficient defence, as we found out today.’