Darlington Man Jailed For Bannatyne Gym Fraud

9 November 2015, 15:18 | Updated: 9 November 2015, 15:23

A finance director from Darlington who took almost £8m from TV star Duncan Bannatyne's gym business has been jailed for four years and eight months.

Gambling addict Christopher Watson, 46, took huge sums from Bannatyne's Fitness Limited over a period of years to cover his debts with major betting firms, Teesside Crown Court heard.

The married father-of-three, from Cleveland Avenue, Darlington, admitted one count of fraud, representing him taking £7,974,221 between 2008 and 2014.

He also admitted five counts of transferring criminal property - representing homes he bought in the Darlington area - with the stolen cash.

Mr Bannatyne, best-known for his role in the Dragons' Den BBC series, was not in court.

In a statement read out by the prosecution, he said: ``I'm absolutely shocked and appalled at the callous actions of Mr Watson.''

The entrepreneur said he had raised the issue of increasing some staff's pay from the minimum wage level at meetings, but ``Chris Watson argued cash flow would not allow it''.

Mr Bannatyne said he refinanced the firm in 2014, and sold freehold land which he had to then rent back, ``although it had always been my plan to pass the land along with my companies to my children''.

Andrew West, prosecuting, said the offending was an abuse of trust by the accountant, who worked at the firm's Darlington head office.

``He siphoned off huge amounts of money from corporate accounts to accounts held by him,'' the court heard.

Watson made 162 fraudulent transactions from Bannatyne's Fitness, and used the money to finance his gambling, or to further his own financial interests.

The finance director, who was also company secretary at the time, was paid £85,000 a year, plus a ``generous bonus scheme'', the court heard.

He was promoted onto the board after joining the firm in 2007.

Mr West said Watson tried to cover up his dishonesty by submitting doctored invoices which he could pay into his own accounts.

He used the money to pay off debts of £5.4 million at the betting firm Spreadex, with another £500,000 at Ladbrokes and £250,000 at Sporting Index, the court heard.

When Watson was eventually arrested he told police he found he had the opportunity to steal and claimed he had been corrupted.

Mr West said: ``He took money as he thought they were all doing it.''

Adrian Langdale, defending, said: ``He is very much a product of the environment he found.''

Watson was almost 40 when he joined the firm and was a ``good, honest, hard-working individual''.

Mr Langdale said: ``He found a culture of undoubtedly corrupted company management.

``It is clear he was getting corrupted both financially and morally.

``He began to lose sight of where the line lay, the line between what's right and wrong.''

Mr Langdale said it was a stressful job and there was bullying.

He claimed there were examples of people using the business to cover debts or using the company ``as a form of personal bank account''.

Watson, who started working life as a shelf-stacker at Morrisons supermarket and worked his way up, became addicted to gambling, Mr Langdale said.

He has since undergone treatment and attends Gamblers Anonymous.

At first he took money from the firm to try to recoup his losses, but they became too great.

Mr Langdale said: ``He will have lost everything through his own actions.

``He has lost his job, his employability, he will have lost his home, his reputation, his liberty.

``He will have lost, in many ways, his children and his wife for a significant period of time.''

Judge Howard Crowson said Watson created false paperwork in the latter years of the fraud but at other times instructed other members in the accounts department to make payments, making them believe it was an honest act.

``During that time you took more than £7.9m, the majority of which will never be recovered because you lost it gambling,'' he said. ``But not all of it.''

Referring to the homes Watson bought with his wife, the judge said that indicated he was not consumed by a gambling addiction, or that he was driven by forces beyond his control.

Even if Watson had merely turned ``a blind eye'' to other people's wrong-doing in the accounts department, he would have been in breach of his code of conduct.

``This was an abuse of position, of power and trust and responsibility,'' he said. ``It was clearly fraudulent activity over a sustained period of time.''

Watson, who was jailed for four years and eight months and disqualified from being a director for five years, smiled sadly as he left the dock.

He will face a Proceeds of Crime hearing next year.