A trustee is imprisoned after using employees' funds to prop up struggling businesses and buy a home for his daughter. James Phillips looks at the details of the case.
A pension scheme trustee has been sentenced to just over three years in prison after admitting to fraudulently transferring more than £290,000 of pension scheme funds to himself, his family and a client.
On 29 March, Roger Bessent was convicted of fraud, employer-related investments, and director disqualification offences after a joint prosecution by The Pensions Regulator (TPR) and the Insolvency Service.
He was a trustee and administrator of the Focusplay Retirement Benefit Scheme, but abused his position to misappropriate scheme funds to support struggling and new businesses which he part-owned.
The scheme provided pension provision for members of staff at Gleeson Bessent (Accountants and Business Advisers), and employed Gleeson Bessent Trustees as a professional trustee of the firm. Bessent was a director of both firms.
At his prosecution in February, he had admitted and pleaded guilty to the offences. His sentence comprises 35 months for the fraud offences and four months for the investment offences, which will be served concurrently, alongside five months for the direction disqualification offences.
At his sentencing, judge Nicholas Barker said Bessent's "selfish and greedy acts" had targeted "ordinary, hard-working people".
He added: "The system relies on trust. It's that trust you breached. You used their money as your own. You knew what you were doing was dishonest and wrong."
This is the first case of TPR securing an immediate custodial sentence - as well as its inaugural use of powers to prosecute for both fraud and employer-related investment offences.
Brought to justice
The watchdog's executive director of frontline regulation, Nicola Parish, said Bessent had been brought "to justice".
"This sentence shows how seriously the courts take the theft of people's hard-earned savings," she continued. "Trustees should be in no doubt that if they abuse their position like Bessent did, they should be prepared to go to prison."
The regulator said it would now pursue separate action to force Bessent to repay the remainder of the embezzled funds.
Bessent's actions were also condemned by pensions and financial inclusion minister Guy Opperman.
"Fraudsters who abuse positions of trust to line their own pockets with other people's hard-earned savings will feel the full force of the law," he said. "I welcome the sentence handed down by the courts today, and the regulator's action in bringing this prosecution.
"We're determined to protect everyone's pensions which is why we're introducing a new offence of wilful or reckless behaviour relating to a pension scheme, punishable by up to seven years in jail or unlimited fines."
The future power was first mooted ahead of the 2017 general election, detailed in the government's white paper last year, and then confirmed in a final consultation response in January this year - although it is unclear when it will be implemented.
Not above the law
Insolvency Service chief investigator John Fitzsimmons said Bessent's "wrongdoings eventually caught up with him".
"When Roger Bessent signed his disqualification undertaking, he would have been fully aware he shouldn't have been managing a company or that he risked going to jail," he said. "He clearly thought he could disregard his restrictions but thankfully his wrongdoings eventually caught up with him and has led to severe enforcement action.
"We welcome the court's decision to jail him. Working in tandem with TPR, we will put a stop to those unscrupulous company directors who think they are above the law."
It is the latest example of the regulator's use of its enforcement powers to punish criminal acts within the pensions sector. On 28 March, the chief executive of a disability charity, and his wife, appeared in court over fraud and money laundering charges. No plea was offered and the case will now be heard at Winchester Crown Court on 24 April.
Bessent's use of pension scheme funds
Roger Bessent admitted transferring more than £290,000 from the Focusplay Retirement Benefit Scheme into businesses that he part-owned and which were run by himself, his family and a client.
The transfers were converted into loans, and Bessent falsified pension scheme minutes and records to state that other trustees were present at meetings when decisions were made.
More than £120,000 of pension scheme funds were used to buy Bessent and his wife a house to rent out as a personal investment, but this was then lived in by their daughter and her partner. Around £80,000 has now been repaid.
Other funds were used to pay tax bills for Bessent's accountancy business as well as the business of a client, and to subsidise running costs of a children's nursey, and as start-up capital in his son-in-law's physiotherapy business.
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