A man behind a loyalist paramilitary-linked “one stop shop” for “extortionate” loans and cannabis has been handed an 18-month sentence.
Despite defence pleas not to jail Thomas James Porter, Judge Neill Rafferty QC said that “there must be deterrent sentences” for anyone involved in illegal money lending as it “preys upon the vulnerable” in society.
Ordering the 46-year-old father-of-three to serve half his sentence in jail and the other half on licence, the Antrim Crown Court judge said he was essentially running a “one stop shop for cannabis and loans.”
“There’s an underlying relation between the accruing of drug debt and the accrued loan sharking,” said Judge Rafferty. "One can see how there was a synergy between the illegal operations.”
At an earlier hearing, Porter, originally from the Shankill area of Belfast but now with an address at Knockleigh Drive in Greenisland, entered guilty pleas to supplying class B cannabis and being an unregulated money lender on dates between January 7 2016 and May 31 2017.
The charges arose after officers from the PSNI Paramilitary Crime Task Force raided Porter’s house and seized a phone and a ledger which contained names and highlighted figures and amounts.
“It’s clear from a perusal of Thai material that there was active money lending and the type of threats that go with that,” said the judge.
He revealed that some of the figures ran to thousands and that Porter was charging an “extortionate rate of 40% interest” on the money he loaned and “if the borrower missed a payment, there was the threat of violence.”
The judge further revealed that in the ledger, drug debts were highlighted in green while loan debts were highlighted in blue.
Defence counsel Conor Coulter had tried to persuade Judge Rafferty not to jail Porter, highlighting that he has significant caring duties for his children and elderly mother and that his partner had recently had a significant stay in hospital.
The judge said while defence counsel had “said everything you could,” he added it was clear that Porter “has links with paramilitary groups” and had a criminal record with “significant convictions which indicate paramilitary involvement.”
“Loan sharking preys upon the vulnerable, often the desperate and those whose ability to repay is limited but they will agree to any terms, simply to manage their situation," he said,
"But invariably, they’re charged exorbitant and extortionate rates of interest and almost invariably, become trapped in a cycle where they’re simply paying the interest and that is extorted from them through the threat of violence."
The judge warned that such offences “must attract deterrent jail sentences.”
Welcoming the sentence, Detective Chief Inspector Kelly from the Police Service said: "Partners within the PCTF remain committed to tackling the organised criminality of those who hide under the banner of a paramilitary organisation.
“We will continue to pursue those who cause real harm to their own communities through the distribution and supply of illicit drugs.
“Along with our partners, we’re focused on highlighting and addressing how paramilitary groups use illegal money lending as a means to control and exploit vulnerable people. The coercion that comes with illegal money lending means that it’s common for victims to feel that they have no-one to turn to.
“I’m taking this opportunity to ask anyone who is, or has been, a victim of illegal money lending to contact police on 101. You can also contact Crimestoppers anonymously on 0800 555 111.”