A man has been jailed for four years and nine months for evading more than £2 million in taxes by trading in illegal tobacco.
Lee Foster, of Highfield Close, Oswaldtwistle, was caught by HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC) buying illegal cigarettes and tobacco to sell on during a surveillance operation in 2014.
HMRC bosses said Foster was a ‘middleman’ in a larger £16.5 million excise duty fraud that centred on a criminal network based in Blackburn.
Detailed records kept by the gang leader, postmaster Iqbal Haji, of Whalley Road, Blackburn, mention Foster 183 times buying illegal tobacco products to sell on during a four-year period, the HMRC said.
Foster, 49, was arrested at Manchester Airport on December 21 last year as he returned from holiday in Tenerife.
He pleaded guilty at Preston Crown Court to two counts of being knowingly concerned in the fraudulent evasion of excise duty.
His 183 purchases of illegal tobacco from Haji between 2010 and 2014 amounted to more than £2 million in evaded excise duty and VAT.
Speaking after the sentence hearing, Sandra Smith, assistant director of HMRC’s Fraud Investigation Service, said: “Foster was a middleman for this illegal tobacco ring.
“He was a regular customer of Haji and fully involved in trading in smuggled goods that damage legitimate sales from honest shops.
“Middleman like Foster are essential to organised criminal gangs, allowing them to hide the scale of their illegal trade.”
Iqbal Haji, 51, a postmaster of Whalley Street, Blackburn, was sentenced to six years jail for Excise Duty evasion and two years jail for money laundering, to run concurrently, in May last year.
He pleaded guilty to two counts of conspiracy to contravene the Customs and Excise Management Act after HMRC officers found a total of 15 kilos of illegal hand rolling tobacco along with £101,124 in cash at his home, the HMRC said.
HMRC said Foster is the fifth customer of Haji’s to be jailed.
Three were jailed alongside Haji in May 2016 including Keith Allen, 67, of West View, Oswaldtwistle, James Willmott, 55, of Wellfield, Clayton-le-Moors, and Wayne Brown, 52, of Spring Vale, Darwen.
Allen was found guilty of three charges of the import or export of goods with intent to defraud her majesty of duty and one count of acquiring, using or possession criminal property. He defrauded the tax payer out of more than £350,000 and was jailed for four years.
Willmott admitted two counts of import or export of goods with intent to defraud her Majesty of duty and was jailed for 16 months. Brown pleaded guilty to two counts of the import or export of goods with intent to defraud duty and was jailed for 13 months.
Another man from Middleton, Manchester was jailed for 12 months in May this year.