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Key fraudster behind wines and spirits ‘Ponzi’ scheme gets five years

Richard Gunter a sales director at Vintage Hallmark pleaded guilty to his part in the scheme which duped hundreds of victims

One of the key figures behind a Mayfair-fronted Ponzi scheme has been sentenced to five years imprisonment after admitting his part in a multimillion-pound wine and spirits investments fraud targeted at American doctors.

Richard Gunter a sales director at Vintage Hallmark pleaded guilty to his part in the scheme which duped hundreds of victims with the promise of high returns, over short periods of time, linked to “investments” in wine, whisky and cognac.

His sentencing marks the end of a long running Serious Fraud Office investigation into a string of three parallel Ponzi-style scams which were exposed in the early part of the last decade. The investigation was made harder by the suicide in 2003 of David Lamb, an accountant and director of Vintage Hallmark.

Convictions have been secured in all three cases. Following the lifting of reporting restrictions, it can now be revealed that Gunter is serving a four and a half year jail sentence after being found guilty last year of a fraud – with three others – at a business called Vintage Wines of St Albans. A former associate of Gunter’s was jailed two years ago in relation to a copycat scheme purporting to involve investments in the financing of frozen foods.

Vintage Hallmark went bust in January 2003 owing £77m, largely to American investors. Three years later Gunter and his colleague Robin Grove were disqualified from acting as company directors for 15 years following an investigation by the then Department of Trade and Industry.

At the time, judge Richard Havery said they were “utterly unfit to be concerned in the management of a company”. In his disqualification ruling five years ago, he described how in 2000 one victim of the fraud was persuaded to buy ,000 worth of vodka that would be resold for ,000 in three months’ time. Although he was told the sale price had been achieved, the victim never saw his money.

The fraud was said to be operated by sales staff in Peterborough and Luton though the business used a prestigious shop on St James’s Street in Mayfair as its registered address, adding to a veneer of established respectability.

The SFO brought charges against Grove but the jury at Harrow crown court was unable to reach a verdict. He was therefore acquitted of one count of false accounting and prosecutors said they would not seek a retrial.

Gunter is said to have taken more than £1m out of the Ponzi scheme which he used for his own benefit, spending it on luxury cars, personal share investments and the private numberplate “RG1″.

Victims were lured with promises such as a 50% return over 10 months from an investment in champagne or a 110% return over three months from investments in whisky. Before these returns matured, however, sales staff persuaded victims to roll over their profits into “product financing”. At this stage investment deals were converted into promissory notes, detached from underlying assets. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds