Monday 31 October 2011

Jailed last year for money laundering - now back at work for "ethical" estate agent

Last year he was jailed for his role in a scam that cost a terminally ill widow her life savings. Today, Sean White is back working in property, as a lettings agent.

White (right)  was given a two-year sentence (one year jail, one year on licence) after pleading guilty to money laundering. Released on licence he is now working for an "ethical" estate agent in Cardiff. You could not, as they say, make it up.

White laundered £115,000 of our late mother's savings and was told by Judge Paul Thomas QC. "You were a vital component in this wicked enterprise" and that he would "never again be employed in a position of trust - and deservedly so".

The judge spoke too soon. Barely 18 months on, White is now letting properties for Property Megastore - "We are a family run, ethically motivated Estate & Lettings Agency".

Company boss and self-styled "property visionary" Andrew Gregory said he empathised with our family's situation and explained himself courteously when I contacted him. He told me: "I won't apologise for taking him on. Any decision I make here is for the good of the business. I did not do this lightly. I believe in giving people a second chance."

I can understand his point of view and I do think it is preferable that White earns his own living honestly rather than live off the benefits funded from our taxes.

But it is impossible to overstate the impact the scam had on the last year of our mother's life, destroying her peace of mind as thoroughly as cancer wrecked her body.

White, who admitted visiting our late mother's home - presumably not a social call - was the first person jailed over the scam. Last month, Steven George of Dutton Walk, Bristol was given an eight-month sentence for possession of the proceeds of crime. His arrest and jailing followed more than a year of painstaking detective work by Barry CID who initially had only his name on a banker's draft to go on.

Back to the Property Megastore. Andrew Gregory said he spoke to probation officers, lawyers, and some of his clients before appointing someone with a criminal record for dishonesty to his staff.

"He has repaid his debt to society". That may be true, although he has not repaid a penny of the £2,000 he admitted making from the scam, let alone the £115,000 of my mother's savings that were in his account. Significantly, he showed no remorse either in police interviews or in court.

Mr Gregory is very happy with his new member of staff - "he has been nothing but exemplary". Except, he managed to advertise on a Cardiff housing website (screen grab below), wrongly claiming to be an accredited landlord - a process that has now led to a review of the way landlords in the city are verified.

The Property Megastore believes this was down to a slip-up by someone at the council, filling out the forms over the phone, rather than a deep conspiracy. The company says it was actually nothing to do with or anything implied by White or the Property Megastore.

This is the council statement, issued in the name of Councillor Judith Woodman, Executive Member for Housing, Communities and Social Justice: "Cardiff Council can confirm that Mr Sean White is not an accredited landlord.

"Information recently published on the Cardiff housing website which suggested Mr White was an accredited landlord was incorrect and withdrawn within a day of it being posted.

"Cardiff Council's current policy stipulates that prior to any information being published on the site; checks are made by our Private Sector Housing Team to ensure that there are no outstanding legal issues concerning the property. In the case of Mr White's property, these checks came back negative and an application to promote the landlord, agent and property was submitted by Mr White for inclusion on the website.

"As part of the application process, amongst other details, landlords are asked to specify if they are accredited. All applications are periodically checked by our housing teams to ensure that the information contained is accurate. There is also a facility on the Cardiff Housing website for landlords to amend/update their information. Enquiries are currently being made to establish exactly how Mr White's status came to indicate he was an accredited landlord.

"In light of this incident, Cardiff Council and it partner agencies are now reviewing current arrangements regarding the verification of landlord, agent and property information, including how this information in administered on the site to help ensure this doesn't happen again and to further enhance our existing safeguarding measures."

Thursday 8 April 2010

All other blog is a BBC blog

Regular readers, both of you, may have noticed one or two changes to the blog formerly known as David Cornock's other blog.

I'm going respectable. Seven years after I began one of the first BBC blogs (Nick Robinson was another pioneer - whatever happened to him?) I'm going to be blogging on the BBC platform again.

This blog will cease to carry my thoughts on matters political. You'll need to re-tune to discover my latest in-depth analysis on the general election, LCOs, the Barnett formula and other equally fascinating topics.

I won't be posting about politics here again, but the other blog will remain as an archive so future generations can savour my take on Westminster life during the last few years. I do hope those future generations will be suitably grateful.

A big thank you to those of you who stuck with my other blog during its unofficial years. I hope we'll meet again on the BBC site.

Wednesday 7 April 2010

Gordon's guarantee - does he mean us?

Gordon Brown's election launch included "a direct guarantee to every single citizen of Britain" on public services.

Many of these services are run by devolved governments in Scotland and Wales, which may lead you to wonder whether the "direct guarantee to every single citizen of Britain" is worth the paper it wasn't written on.

This is what the PM said outside No 10: "I want to give a direct guarantee to every single citizen of Britain that when you need the police, when you need help with cancer care, when you need your GP at the evenings or at weekends, when you need as a child to have personal tuition in your school, then these public services will be there, directly guaranteed to you as an individual citizen when you need them and accountable to you and your family."

Your GP at evenings and weekends? Personal tuition? These sound like England-only pledges, available only to some of the citizens of Britain. Labour certainly cannot guarantee them in Scotland.

This is the more carefully-worded text version of what he said, from the Labour website: "I pledge this guarantee, a personal guarantee for you - that when you need to get in touch with the police, when you need cancer care, when you need access to a GP in the evenings or at weekends, when you need one to one tuition for your child, our public services will be there guaranteed to you and accountable to you and your family."

We will have to wait for Labour's Welsh manifesto, written by the Foreign Office Minister Chris Bryant, to discover how the party squares the circle between what Mr Brown said and what he can actually deliver.

Tuesday 6 April 2010

First election snub to Wales?

The circus that is Abingdon, aka College Green, currently features media folk from across the globe, a lone resilient anti-Iraq protester, a bookmaker or two, and someone giving away party political crisps.

This stunt allows voters to display their allegiance by opting for the "Real Election politi-crisps" of their choice. Each colour-coded bag displays the appropriate party leader.

They may contain 10.5g of fat in every bag, but the makers, who are based in South Wales, insist there are no artificial policies.

All come in the identical sea salt flavour; the three I examined are all best before July 2010.

So why only three? Is this the first election snub to Wales guaranteed to raise the hackles of Plaid Cymru's parliamentary leader and push the Elfynometer into overdrive?

Apparently not. The makers insist they have no allegiance whatsoever and nationalists from Wales and elsewhere can display their views by clicking on "other" on the special webpage set up for the campaign.

On the Buses

Perhaps it was turning 60 two months ago but Peter Hain is displaying a fierce pre-occupation with bus passes.

Three times on Radio Wales this morning, before the election had even been called, the Welsh Secretary warned of the threat posed to these freebies by a Conservative victory.

The Tories deny that they would scrap the bus passes. Welsh bus passes are funded by the Labour-led Welsh Assembly Government, which has given no indication it would scrap them if forced to deal with a reduced budget from Westminster under a Conservative government.

So voters may assume the bus passes will survive the election, whoever wins on May 6.

The passes themselves are often highlighted as an example of Wales leading the way - as the first nation to introduce them. Whisper it quietly but the idea - contained in Labour's 1999 Welsh Assembly election manifesto - came from London where over-60s have had free bus and Tube travel for years.

Peter Hain, yes him again, could not understand why his retired parents, then living in Putney, got free travel but pensioners in his own constituency did not.

The man himself now qualifies for his own free bus pass and indeed has used his newly-acquired senior railcard to travel between Neath and Westminster.

Downing Street: Waiting for Gordo

A new dawn has broken, has it not?

Abingdon Green, opposite the House of Commons, at 7am, as seen from the Radio Wales "pop-up" studio (two folding camp chairs).

The green currently resembles a Milletts outdoor showroom as the world's media shelter beneath temporary gazebos.

No sign of Gordon Brown yet today, although David Cameron has been for a run near his home in North Kensington before making tea for waiting reporters outside.

Today's Sun does have a front page photograph of the Prime Minister returning from his own jog around St James's Park.

Sounds like Nick Clegg and Elfyn Llwyd need to invest in a pair of running shoes to keep up.

Thursday 25 March 2010

Cuts: Labour MPs forced to share vocabularies

The Conservatives aren't the only ones singing from the same hymn sheet when it comes to their Budget message.

Labour MPs have had another case of great minds thinking rather alike.

Here is Aberavon MP Hywel Francis's take on what Alistair Darling had to say yesterday: "I welcome this Budget as it secures the recovery – rather than putting it at risk. It builds a future based on growth and jobs – rather than leaving people to a decade of austerity."

Martyn Jones from Clwyd South had this to say: "This Budget secures the recovery rather than putting it at risk.

"It builds a future based on growth and jobs rather than leaving people to a decade of austerity."

Perhaps the Chancellor's new-found efficiency savings have already been implemented, forcing Labour backbenchers to share vocabularies.

Wednesday 24 March 2010

Budget Day, the Tory way

Here's a rough timeline of Conservative activity on Budget Day at Westminster.

Early afternoon (via @paulwaugh) Tory whips text to MPs says: "This is an empty Budget, which proves Labour has run out of ideas".

Mid afternoon: Tory MP declines interview because they've been told not to comment before official briefing.

4.54pm: Conservative Campaign Headquarters e-mail journalists: "An empty Budget: the day Labour were found out."

"The only new policies were ones stolen from the Conservatives – like the stamp duty cut and new university places. It was the day Labour were found out.

"Britain can see that only the Conservatives have the energy, leadership and ideas to get Britain working."

4.59pm:  Press release arrives from Cheryl Gillan: “This really was the day when Labour was found out. It is clear now that only Conservatives have the energy and drive to get Wales and Britain back on track.”
If demonstrating old New Labour-style on-message commitment wins votes then the Tories must be feeling optimistic.

Plaid MPs: why we cross picket lines

A Plaid Cymru spokeswoman e-mails to explain why the party's MPs will be crossing picket lines today:

"Plaid's AMs have supported the right of the PCS union to withdraw labour during this dispute by not crossing their picket lines. Plaid is urging the Westminster government to return to negotiations with the union immediately and the Assembly group will be writing to the Gordon Brown's government to impress on them the need to do so.

"It is also inconceivable that Members of Parliament representing Plaid Cymru should not attend the budget debate today.

“It was a tough decision between supporting the strikers and the importance of the up and coming budget on public sector workers given the agenda of the two main parties in Westminster.

"There is a difference between this and the meaningless attempts by opposition parties in Cardiff Bay to score petty political points during such a worrying time for so many public sector workers.

“Their actions show how little they care for the people affected by the Westminster government's plans to cut redundancy payments."

MPs cross where AMs fear to tread

"It is something ingrained in party thinking. We do not cross a picket line."

The words of Welsh Labour leader Carwyn Jones, quoted in today's Western Mail. They may create some difficulty for his Labour colleagues in Westminster, where pickets are out in force on Budget Day.

Chancellor Alistair Darling will have to cross a picket line to deliver his own Budget - and presumably run the risk of being called a scab by his party's leader in Wales.

In Cardiff Bay, Labour and Plaid Cymru AMs are staying away from the Welsh Assembly chamber.

Plaid Cymru say their AMs have supported the right of the PCS union to withdraw labour in this dispute.

Plaid's three MPs may also support union's right to withdraw labour during this dispute, but, according to a spokeswoman, they will be present in the Commons for the Budget statement.

No news yet on what Plaid AMs make of their colleagues' decision.

Thursday 18 March 2010

So how was it for me?

The last time I went to Cardiff Crown Court I was a young reporter on the Western Mail with pretty good shorthand.

Today, almost a quarter of a century later, and with slightly less perfect Teeline, I was back: this time not as a reporter but as the son of a victim of crime.

Two things I learned today: the acoustics aren't so great in the public seats and you don't get to see the defendant's face during sentencing.

Sean White was smirking as he arrived at court and appeared to be smirking as he was taken down.

Perhaps he was born smirking, or he thought he got off lightly with a two-year sentence, the second out on licence.

The sentence would have been longer but the prosecution were unable to prove that White profited by more than the £2,000 he claimed. It was also reduced by one third for his guilty plea.

It was surreal to emerge from the court building and be faced by TV and still cameras and several hacks waiting to talk to my sister and me, an inside-out view of my daily existence.

All, from Real Radio to Wales News, asked me the how-do-you-feel question about the sentence.

I'm not unhappy with it. I'm not convinced keeping him banged up for longer would help the greater good. I'd rather see him doing some tough but useful community work, provided the judicial experience is enough to stop him doing something similar to someone else's mother.

On the other hand, perhaps he was smirking because he is genuinely terrified of the guys behind this and thinks he'll be safer inside.

For me, this not about revenge; it's not about the money. It's about how an evil bunch of greedy parasites tormented a dying elderly widow in her own home.

What pleased me most about the process was the way the judge, Paul Thomas QC, understood the impact of the crime on my mother and our family and the way he reflected that in the way he spoke to White.

The other question I've been asked today is: how did it happen?

That's a question, in the absence of my mother, none of us can fully answer. She was so ashamed at having been conned that she chose to suffer in silence with devastating consequences for her health.

We're not exactly the Waltons but throughout this she carried on as a Mum and devoted Granny with absolutely no hint of the inner mental torment she must have felt.

I thought our discovery of the scam would help give her peace of mind in her final weeks.

I was wrong. The shame she felt made things worse and she never came to terms with her fatal illness despite the brilliance of the staff at the Marie Curie Holme Tower hospice in Penarth.

I've been really touched by how many people have been in touch today and have shared or re-tweeted the story. The messages have helped restore my fractured faith in the fundamental decency of most people.

 I even had an e-mail from someone who was in Sunday School with my late father in Ammanford 70 years ago. Thank you all. Carry on re-tweeting.

It's not an obvious story to share, and re-living events today has been draining. I would rather not have had to bare my soul across the media but only by spreading the news can we alert people to the way some evil lowlifes target the old and vulnerable.

I have been asked the "closure" question a few times today. Part of me hates these psychobabble terms, but I understand what this one means. The main villains behind what the judge called this wicked enterprise are still out there so "closure" is some way off.

But as a family we can move on, to borrow another phrase from the world of psychobabble. We have to move on.

Back to the day job. Can I interest you in a fascinating item on the Barnett formula....?

The caring estate agent

This is where Sean White was arrested, on September 16 last year - outside Seraph Estates, an estate agency in Crwys Road, Cardiff, where he was sales manager.

He was later charged with two counts of money laundering. And back at work the next day.

Sean White continued to work at Seraph Estates for almost four months after his arrest.

In early January, he made a first appearance at Cardiff Crown Court. Intrigued by his continued employment, I telephoned his office to ask to speak to him, to be told: "It's his day off.".

"Er, can I speak to his boss please?" I spoke to Seraph's proprietor, Douglas Haig, who told me he was shocked to hear his sales manager had been charged with such serious offences. He said he was not aware Sean White had been arrested at his office. He suspended White (innocent until he pleaded guilty) the next day.

The police tell me Mr Haig was aware of his employee's arrest - Mr Haig says he was not. White only joined the staff of Seraph Estates months after the crime for which he was jailed today. There is no suggestion Douglas Haig knew what Sean White had been up to.

Indeed, Mr Haig trusted White so much he loaned him £20,000 - and is presumably still waiting for his money. He may have a long wait.

Readers of the South Wales Echo will have learned recently how Mr Haig is a man on a mission to rid landlords of their image as crooks. He just had the misfortune to employ a crook as his own sales manager.

Mr Haig told me: "I attend PACT [Police and Communities Together] meetings and give up a lot of my time doing things that other estate agents do not do because I believe we all have a responsibility for our environment. I'm not a crook and work hard to make Cardiff a better place."

Fair enough. He also told me: "We have been hit very badly by having to adapt to losing a sales person."

I have patiently explained to Mr Haig that we've been hit very badly by having to adapt to losing a mother and grandmother but then you would hope the man on the mission could have figured that out all by himself.

Seraph Estates are currently looking for a new sales negotiator.  The job description demands "out of the box ideas" - although hopefully Sean White won't be allowed out of his box to apply.

A life's savings gone: how?

They are the most jaw-dropping, eye-popping bank statements I have ever seen.

The pattern of spending resembles that of a Premier League footballer rather than an elderly widow. Has my mother suddenly swapped "tinsel and turkey" breaks in Falmouth for nights out at Bouji's?

These are cash withdrawals she made from branches of NatWest:

Penarth Branch:

6 May 2008 - £6,000,
22 July 2008 - £4,500,
29 July 2008 - £4,500,
19 Aug 2008 - £4,000,
5 Nov 2008 - £18,000,
14 Jan 2009 - £6,000,
31 March 2009 - £5,000,
16 April 2009 - £5,000,
5 May 2009 - £7,000.

Barry Town Hall:

29 July 2008 - £2,000,
20 Aug 2008 - £4,000,
11 Nov 2008 - £6,000,
21 Jan 2009 - £13,000,
26 March 2009 - £5,000,
1 May 2009 - £10,000,
5 May 2009 - £10,000,
4 June 2009 - £5,000,
10 June 2009 - £5,000.

Cardiff University Hospital branch:

19 Aug 2009 - £6,500

She also made two electronic transfers totalling £115,000, from her NatWest account to Sean White, who was jailed today.

How could it happen? It's a question I've been asked today by others, and one I've been asking myself for six months.

My mother had banked with NatWest and its predecessors for 61 years and was a customer of its Private Banking service - NatWest managed her life savings. She was a former bank employee and an RBS pensioner thanks to my late father's work there. His father worked for a NatWest predecessor. So discovering her spending habits was something of a shock to say the least.

As any son would, I contacted her bank as soon as I found the paper trail that led to today's case. I was told: "Unless Mrs Cornock told us she was the victim of fraud, there was nothing we could do."

NatWest told me that, like other banks, have a strict duty of confidentiality to other customers and could not have alerted family members to the pattern of withdrawals.

I questioned why a widow pensioner was given her first overdraft - of £5,000 - at the age of 76. NatWest said the overdraft facility was standard and it wrote to her - in July 2009 - to reduce the limit.

The bank promised to investigate my concerns last September. My mother had just been diagnosed with terminal cancer and I hoped to secure some peace of mind for her in her last months.

After six weeks, having heard little I asked the bank if contacting the press office would produce a quicker response. I was told: "No newspaper would be interested".

Journalists love a challenge, so I contacted the Observer and the Daily Mirror in the hope of getting some answers while my mother was still alive. It appears my news judgement is sounder than some who work in banking.

I questioned why the bank did not raise concerns over the sums involved, as they added up to more than the value of my mother's home. The bank told me that "no bank is able to know all these details for all its customers". My mother's home was insured by.....NatWest.

NatWest say their investigations revealed that counter staff carried out the checks required of any vulnerable customer withdrawing huge sums of money. Indeed, one staff member at Penarth went outside the branch with my mother to check she was not being followed.

The two payments to Sean White passed "due diligence" checks by the bank, which said it accepted my mother's assurances that they were to open a bond at HSBC (despite the cash going straight into White's account) and that they were to an accountant. (NatWest's personal tax service completed her tax returns each year - if she had an accountant, it was them).

Sadly, my mother died last November before NatWest completed their investigations.

NatWest have consistently denied any liability, but have (verbally) offered us £60,000 as a "goodwill gesture" which we have told them we are minded to accept as a way of moving on from this trauma that does not involve enriching lawyers.

As a BBC correspondent I strive to be fair and impartial in accordance with our Values. As a son writing a personal blog I am doing the same although you may not be surprised to learn that I have recently changed the banking habits of a lifetime.

Estate agent jailed over my Mum's life savings

This is Cardiff estate agent Sean White, as he would like his friends to see him, on a popular social networking site.

Facebook may be the only way his friends can see him in the near future, as he is now beginning a short term in what he would doubtless describe as a deceptively spacious prison cell.

White, of 18, Glenroy Street, Roath, Cardiff, is paying the penalty for laundering £115,000 from an old lady's life savings. His victim was Anne Cornock, a 76-year-old widow from the Vale of Glamorgan.

My mother did not live to see Sean White face justice. She died last November from cancer, her last months destroyed by the way Sean White and his mates conned her out of her life savings.

In all, she lost £272,300 in a scam linked to a new drive on her modest bungalow in Sully, near Penarth. Unknown to her family, who discovered the scam by accident while she was in hospital, she was conned and threatened for more than a year, too ashamed and frightened to call the police or tell anyone.

Today, at Cardiff Crown Court, Sean White was sentenced to two years - a year in jail, a year on licence -after pleading guilty to two counts of money laundering £115,000.

Judge Paul Thomas QC told White: "You were a vital component in this wicked enterprise. Without thoroughly dishonourable people like you, these men who exploited Mrs Cornock could not have profited so easily."

White committed the crimes while proprietor of his own business - Masons Homes (Rumney) Ltd. At the time of his arrest - and for three months afterwards - White was sales manager of Seraph Estates in Cardiff. The judge told him he would "never again be employed in a position of trust - and deservedly so".

White's defence was that he did not know where the money that ended up in his bank account came from, even though my mother's name clearly showed on online bank statements. White swiftly emptied the account; the money is long gone.

He told the police that he only knew those he passed the money to by nicknames. Would you lend your bank account details to someone you hardly knew? Me neither.

If you were a gang intent on fleecing an old lady for her life savings would you entrust £115,000 of your ill-gotten gains to someone you barely knew? I don't think so.

Besides the £115,000 sent by electronic transfer, my mother handed over a total of more than £150,000 in cash in payments to these thugs who regularly called at her home. The cash withdrawals from branches of NatWest in Penarth and Barry - £18,000 here, £7,000 there, and so on over a period of months, stopped only when she was admitted to hospital last September. She never came home.

My mother was a sensible, cautious woman who was prudent before Gordon Brown learned to spell the word.

She was a private person and was deeply ashamed of being conned in this way. She would not have appreciated this blog post or wanted others to know what she went through. It is very painful for me to have to re-live the events of last year. But if my Mum could fall for it, then so could yours.

Sean White, who has shown zero remorse, is behind bars but the villains who used his bank account are still out there, free to target other vulnerable old people.
Today, at  Cardiff Crown Court, I listened as White's barrister told Cardiff Crown Court how he'd played only a minor part in what the lawyer admitted was the systematic swindling of an old lady.
We heard about White's relationship problems, his child, his business failure, his own housing difficulties. There was just one word missing from the plea of mitigation.