A DUP MLA has called on cops to investigate his shopkeeper dad after Sunday Life snared him at the heart of a lucrative smuggled cigarettes racket.
Politician Paul Frew's hard-hitting demand came after this newspaper caught his shopkeeper dad Robert Frew red handed selling dodgy smokes from eastern Europe which dissident republicans are suspected of supplying.
Shamed Ballymena retailer Robert Frew confessed to selling the illegal, VAT-evading cigarettes and told our reporter: “I’m very sorry”.
The revelation came as a huge shock to his poll topping DUP son Paul, a rising star in the party who had previously called for action against traders who cash in on smuggled cigarettes.
The North Antrim MLA said last night: “I have always condemned all criminal behaviour regardless of its origin.
“I want this information handed to the police who can conduct a full investigation.
“No one should be above the law.”
Over the past two months a Sunday Life undercover team have been buying counterfeit cigarettes from Robert Frew's convenience store on Ballymena's Queen Street.
When we confronted Robert Frew with our secret video evidence yesterday the shopkeeper sheepishly apologised.
“I’m very sorry,” said the greedy businessman, who is a member of the Free Presbyterian Church.
His MLA son once showed up at a local policing meeting in Kells wanting to know: “What measures are the police taking to find out who is selling these smuggled products to customers in the borough?”
What he did not know is that his dad's business has been part of the illegal trade in Ballymena.
The crime, which costs the Northern Ireland economy millions of pounds each year, threatens the closure of at least one in seven of our corner-shops.
With Sunday Life’s dossier set to be handed over to the authorities this week, Paul Frew last night said he wants Sunday Life to hand police the evidence that his father was selling illegal cigarettes.
The MLA added: “I don't believe any reasonable person
would hold me responsible for someone else's alleged actions.”
A Sunday Life investigation into counterfeit cigarettes in Northern Ireland quickly led us to Robert Frew's busy Ballymena shop door.
Criminal sources told us that his Vivo store is widely-known as the place to get “cheap fegs” in North Antrim.
That is bad enough when you consider his DUP son Paul Frew is a fierce critic of cigarette smuggling.
But what will concern the politician even more is that the dodgy packets of ‘MG Premium Blend' being sold in his dad's shop are likely to have been brought to these shores by dissident republicans.
In June we revealed how convicted smuggler Stephen Watters, 45, was one of the prime movers
in a border based gang that sneaked £2.2 million of counterfeit cigarettes into Northern Ireland.
The criminals, whose operation centres around Dundalk, have strong links to two ex-Provos turned New IRA leaders from east Tyrone.
It was these men — who have made a fortune from smuggling — who ordered the murder of prison officer David Black on the M1 motorway last year.
After their contraband cigarette hauls are brought to these shores they are divided into batches and sold through unscrupulous middle-men to shopkeepers like Robert Frew.
Robert Frew told Sunday Life that he has no knowledge of the origin of the illegal smokes being flogged from under the counter of his popular store.
Using hidden cameras we filmed a brunette sales assistant selling the poor-quality tax-evaded packs of 20 to our reporters on four different occasions over the past two months.
We went back to the Vivo shop early on Wednesday morning and recorded Robert Frew doing the same. Robert Frew personally sold us a 20 pack of illegal MG Premium Blend for £3.50 — half the price of a normal box of cigarettes.
Realising he had been caught red handed when Sunday Life returned to his shop yesterday with pictures and video evidence, Frew muttered: “I’m very sorry.”
When asked who he is getting the dodgy cigarettes from, the tax evader said: “Just somebody come in (to the shop) and left me them, y’know.”
Frew said he did not realise that by selling counterfeit smokes he was putting jobs in jeopardy, damaging the economy and funding organised crime.
He added: “I didn’t know that.”
Tobacco industry insiders explained how the packs of MG Premium Blend being sold in Robert Frew's shop are produced in ramshackle factories in eastern Europe.
They are then disguised with Spanish health warnings to make them look legitimate.
“The cigarettes are deliberately produced to be smuggled into western Europe and sold on the black markets,” said a source.
“Covered in Spanish health warnings, the ‘MG’ brand is designed to look like it comes from Spain.
“But it isn’t registered for sale in Spain and can’t be bought legally in Spanish shops.”
Last year 12 million MG Premium Blend cigarettes with misleading Spanish warnings — exactly like those being sold by Robert Frew — were seized in Poland.
The packs were found in the back of a Lithuanian lorry driven by a man with fake papers.
Our source added: “The highest cigarette prices in the EU make Northern Ireland the most profitable market for smugglers.”
Scam will anger Ian Paisley Junior
Money-grabbing Robert Frew’s dodgy cigarette scam will not only embarrass his DUP son Paul Frew — it will also leave one of the most senior figures in the party furious.
Only last month North Antrim MP Ian Paisley Jnr — who was once pictured with Robert Frew holding Paul Frew aloft after an election win — launched a blistering attack on smugglers.
He accused those involved in trading counterfeit cigarettes of putting dozens of jobs in Ballymena at risk.
Mr Paisley Jnr’s scathing comments came after he invited Home Affairs Select Committee MP Keith Vaz to Ballymena so he could learn first-hand of the impact of the crime on the local economy.
The DUP politician accompanied Mr Vaz on a tour of the town’s JTI cigarette factory.
He said: “Mr Vaz heard about this serious problem our economy is facing. The government has a duty to protect these local jobs.”
Mr Vaz spoke of his shock at hearing just how big an issue counterfeit crime is on these shores.
He said: “I was invited to Northern Ireland by Mr Paisley to hear just how serious a problem smuggling and counterfeit crime has become. I was shocked by the figures I have been told about. The government is losing up to one billion pounds of revenue every year as a result.”