Three men have been jailed for a total of 16 years for a £17m tax fraud after an illegal tobacco factory was discovered.
HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC) officers found that a Poland-based criminal network used several sites in the North West and Essex to process raw tobacco into illegal tobacco products in an attempt to evade excise duty and VAT.
During the investigation, HMRC seized tobacco in Preston, Lancashire, in 2013 followed by arrests and more seizures of tobacco and manufacturing equipment the following year in Bury, Greater Manchester; Blackburn, Lancashire; and Halsted, Essex.
One of the men, Robert Zduniak, fled during the trial but was convicted and jailed for eight years in his absence at Manchester Crown Court on Friday. His co-conspirators, Hubert Jankowski, and Lukasz Pawelec, were each jailed for four years.
Pawelec had also tried to flee but was caught at Doncaster Airport and remanded for the remainder of the trial.
In April 2014, HMRC raided a farm in Essex, as well as four premises near Bury and another in Blackburn. They seized around three tonnes of raw tobacco that was in the process of being converted into counterfeit hand rolling tobacco (HRT), £15,000 in cash, chemicals, counterfeit packaging and tobacco packing machinery. The tobacco processing plant in Essex was dismantled immediately by HMRC.
HMRC linked the 2014 seizures and the jailed men to a further eight tonnes of tobacco valued around £1.8m in evaded duty and tax that was seized in Preston in 2013.
Further enquiries by HMRC established that the gang had imported more than 100 tonnes of raw tobacco mislabelled as ‘furniture’ into the UK, from the Czech Republic, over a 15-month period. If converted into counterfeit hand rolling tobacco this represents a potential tax loss of £17m.