EXCLUSIVE: British car dealer named as key member of traveller gang who 'fleeced French pensione
A BRITISH car dealer has been named as a key member of a gang of travellers known as the "Bitumeurs Anglais" who are said to have conned French pensioners out of up to £4 million through an organised asphalt scam. Bertie Lee, 57, from Morecambe, is fighting extradition to France where he faces finishing a three-and-a-half-year prison term for fraud, money laundering and belonging to an organised gang. The grandfather of 12 was one of 19 English travellers prosecuted in France in their absence over the con that saw around 1,000 single pensioners or couples fleeced out of thousands of euros each after they agreed to have bargain driveway work that was then inflated in cost and turned out to be of shoddy construction. The cash was then laundered through buying property in the UK, Westminster Magistrates' Court heard. The scam dates back to 2005 and 2006 when scores of travellers from the UK and Ireland became known as the Bitumeurs Anglais or Irelandais after they registered road surfacing businesses across France.
SPRAWLING: In 2006 several asphalt firms registered in France were traced back to Dale Farm (BBC)
It was the same period that several men from the controversial illegal Dale Farm traveller site near Basildon, in Essex, registered such businesses there, although none of them have been implicated in the scam Lee was convicted over. Lee's case, which centred around Brittany and other regions, took several years to come to court due to the huge number of victims, who had to give evidence, and co-defendants. The French court considered around 30 files of statements of evidence, according to local news reports. Lee, who has no UK convictions and denies the offences, was arrested in the UK last November before fighting against extradition. The judgement of District Judge John McGarva, who ruled he should be extradited, said: "Several gendarmerie squads received complaints in February 2006 from individuals who had asphalt work done after being solicited by English nationals. "The finished work did not correspond to the service promised and did not comply with the rules of door to door solicitation.
EXTENSIVE: Court files of evidence during prosecution of Bertie Lee and co-defendants
"Deceit was also used to gain the customers trust with individuals saying they worked as subcontractors for French companies. "It is alleged (Lee) was involved in a company which was carrying out tarmacking which claimed to be working as subcontractors for French companies carrying out substandard tarmacking work. "A large number of people were defrauded of 3,000 to 4,000 euros at a time." It said the total sum paid out could be up to six million euros, which would have been around £4.2 million in 2006. The judgement added: "There was also an element of money-laundering with the proceeds of the fraud being used to buy property in the UK." Ten English companies were found to be involved in the scam, the court heard. Two of them registered in France had 900,000 euros go through the books in a year, with cash sent out to British registered firms. Lee was the manager and 35 per cent shareholder of one of them called Direct Services registered in Paris. The judgement added: "He used labour and performed poor quality work without paying VAT and failed to file taxes.
REPUTATION: A general shot of a traveller crew dubbed "Bitumeurs Anglais" shown in French press
"He admitted to having completed 282 projects with this company. "The funds generated were used to finance acquisitions in his name or of close connections of real estate, such as land in England or moveable property.” Lee served three months on remand in France before being allowed to return to the UK. The Rennes criminal court tried all 19 defendants in October 2015. Lee, who works with his son as a car dealer in the UK, appealed getting a year reduced from the sentence in 2018, and has lodged a further appeal. He argued extradition would be unjust in respect of offences from 15 years ago and because he suffers from back pain, depression and type two diabetes. He said he suffered in the French prison as "they do not like travellers or the English." However, Judge McGarva wrote: "Although there has been delay, taking into account the large scale and complex nature of the proceedings, the substantial sentence imposed and the seriousness of the offending I do not believe it would be oppressive or unjust to order his extradition." Lee has appealed to the High Court with a date to be set.