A Co Down builder and bar owner narrowly avoided prison yesterday after he admitted cheating the revenue out of over £400,000 in unpaid taxes.
Bartley Murphy (53), of Ardglass Road, Downpatrick, was told by a judge that he was suspending his sentence of two years and three months for three years to reflect his culpability and as a deterrent to others.
The father-of-four had pleaded guilty to a single charge of cheating HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC) out of taxes over an eight-year-period.
Downpatrick Crown Court, sitting in Antrim, heard that Murphy had pleaded not guilty to the charge last November when the tax bill he faced stood at £1.2m.
But Judge Brian Sherrard heard his defence team engaged the services of a forensic accountant, and with the agreement of HMRC, that figure was reduced to £422,142.10p.
Murphy was rearraigned in March this year and pleaded guilty to the single charge of cheating the revenue on dates between April 1, 2007, and March 31, 2015. A cheque was lodged into court yesterday for the full amount owed, which was the result of the sale of his family home along with a £75,000 loan from brewers Bass.
Prosecution lawyer Sam Magee said that Murphy was a self-made builder who was liable to make self-assessment returns on his income tax to HMRC.
However, the lawyer told the court during that period Murphy made either "nil returns" or "no returns for self-assessment".
He told the judge that in 2014 HMRC wrote to him on six occasions but "Mr Murphy was unresponsive... and did not play ball" during the civil process.
Mr Magee said HMRC then referred Murphy's case to its internal Criminal Fraud Investigation Service, which carried out an "intensely complex investigation".
The court heard Murphy was arrested at his then home at Demesne Road, Downpatrick in December 2015 and taken to Bangor PSNI station, where he told tax investigators: "I have nothing to hide."
He told investigators that after the property crash in 2007 he "struggled to keep himself above ground", adding: "I am a good builder but poor with paperwork".
The court heard that during this period "tens of thousands of pounds" had flowed through his bank account yet he "did not pay any money in tax".
Mr Magee said Murphy had 48 previous criminal convictions, including offences of low level violence, one for receiving stolen goods and a number for "non-compliance with statutory regulations".
Defence counsel Eugene Grant QC told the court that Murphy should be given credit for his guilty plea as it had "saved the court a lengthy trial" along with costs of £100,000 each to both the defence and prosecution if the case had gone to trial.
He said Murphy presently worked as a £25,000 a year contracts manager for a building company.
Mr Grant said numerous testimonies had been handed into court about Murphy's charitable work in the community.
Judge Sherrard said any person "who fails to pay tax of this amount over this period of time can only be dealt with by way of a custodial sentence to mark the gravitas of this offending".
However, given his guilty plea and the effect immediate imprisonment would have on sub-contractors building new homes for his firm in the Down area, the judge said he would suspend the prison sentence of 27 months for a period of three years.
Judge Sherrard said he was also fining Murphy £15,000.