The Lib-Dem Ronnie Biggs: How insatiable greed proved the undoing of the playboy who bankrolled Nick Clegg's party

There is never a good time for a proverbial ‘bad penny’ to turn up, so just imagine how galling it is for Liberal Democrats that the fugitive confidence trickster Michael Brown has reappearing when they are at their lowest ebb.

Brown, 6ft 2in, burly, with pony-tailed blond-dyed hair, was once their hero, the party’s biggest-ever benefactor who, to their relief, wanted ‘nothing in return’.

The charismatic Glaswegian with glamorous offices in Mayfair handed them a record £2.4million to fund their 2005 general election campaign and whisked party leader Charles Kennedy and other grandees around the country in his private jet.

Michael Brown fled the country using a forged passport, escaping charges involving £36 million in swindled funds

Michael Brown fled the country using a forged passport, escaping charges involving £36 million in swindled funds (pictured with his wife Sharon)

As it turned out, his high-living riches had been picked from the pockets of trusting investors in his bogus schemes, not all of them as rich as the former Manchester United chairman Martin Edwards, who lost £11 million.

How ironic it is that the bail-jumping convicted fraudster, whose money helped the Lib Dems to considerable success at the polls six years ago, now heaps puce-faced embarrassment on them just as two thirds of those who voted for the ailing party declare they would not do so again.

Brown currently languishes in a grimy Caribbean prison awaiting trial, again for fraud.

Held in the Dominican Republic where he has been living, this time there is no bail for him to jump as was the case in Britain three years ago.

And this time the trial will not proceed in his absence, as it did at Southwark Crown Court in 2008 after Brown fled the country using a forged passport, escaping charges involving £36 million in swindled funds. He got seven years, which Her Majesty’s Prison Service is still waiting for him to serve.

There’s no private jet now, no ocean-going £400,000 yacht, no Bentley, no Range Rover, no Porsche, none of the foie gras and fine wines he enjoyed, and the aristocratic family he boasted of to impress his victims has long been exposed as a fantasy.

Right now he is just another foreign huckster (going by the false name Darren Nally) locked in an 8ft by 8ft cell in prison in the city of Higuey, an hour’s drive from the palm-fringed beach resort where he was living.

Brown used various aliases, moving between tropical islands before settling in the Dominican Republic

Brown used various aliases, moving between tropical islands before settling in the Dominican Republic (pictured above, his luxurious hideaway there)

Unable to cope with the ghastly prison food, which is mainly rice, he has been so ill that his bulky frame has lost 40lb and so depressed that he has been seen by a psychiatrist.

It is a far cry from the tartan-carpeted bar and elegant period dining room of the Caledonian, the London club near Hyde Park (‘a little piece of Scotland in Belgravia’, it proudly proclaims) which was his favourite place for entertaining potential investors in his bogus schemes.

One such investor, a prominent figure who prefers not to be named, recalls meeting him there for a business lunch at around the time Brown was offering to bankroll the Lib Dems.

‘I took my financial advisor with me for protection and we were both completely taken in by him,’ says the investor.

‘He was impeccable from top to bottom — pinstripe suit, waistcoat, highly polished shoes, perfect manners and totally plausible.

‘A serious chap, not very jokey. He talked about his family, that his father Lord someone-or-other was dead, but that his mother Lady whatever was still alive.

'He also casually mentioned his school, Gordonstoun, and indicated that he had links with the royal family.

‘I was obviously cautious because I was considering investing a lot of money in one of his financial instruments.

'But my financial advisor had met him previously and been so impressed he’d phoned me and suggested I meet him So we had this lunch and later we all went to his bank, a local HSBC, to sign papers.’

This investor was signing away millions of pounds he would never see again. The oil deal in which large profits were ‘guaranteed’ didn’t exist.

Clearly, Michael Brown was a superb practitioner of an old trade — fraud; but his relationship with the Liberal Democrats makes his one of the most curious political sagas of recent times, for two reasons.

The first is that he gave a huge sum of money to a party for which he’d never previously displayed any support, while ostensibly seeking no favours in return.

The second is that the ‘independent consultants’ who, according to Charles Kennedy, ‘went the extra mile’ in vetting him, and found his bona fides impeccable, must have failed to question his habit of describing himself as the son of a peer and an old boy of Gordonstoun.

A simple check would have revealed both assertions as lies.

And then there was the matter of his arrest the 1990s for writing bad cheques in Florida, where he jumped bail.

The U.S. mugshot from a 1990s arrest

The U.S. mugshot from a 1990s arrest

His father was indeed dead (he died in 2003) but, far from being an aristocrat, he had worked as a blender for a Scotch whisky firm, later becoming sales director. Brown’s mother was a cashier.

Instead of Gordonstoun he’d attended a local school in Glasgow, failed his maths O-level and done a City and Guilds in catering at Glasgow College of Food Technology.

So just what was Brown’s link with the Liberal Democrats?

‘I’m not aware that he had one,’ admits lawyer and business consultant Lord Razzall, a former party treasurer who is now its trade spokesman in the Lords.

‘I don’t think he knew anybody in the party. He seems to have been what we call ‘a walk-in’, someone who approaches the party with a donation just because they want to help.

‘He was the perfect donor, from a political party’s point of view.

'In my experience, most people who give money to political parties want something in return — policy influence or to be in the House of Lords. Brown never wanted anything.

‘Our only problem was that he offered the money just a month or two before the election, and we could have put it to better use if he’d given it to us a year or so earlier.’

True, he never sought honours or to influence policy, but his donation certainly bought him access to the party leader, as well as a key role in the 2005 general election.

‘It was obvious how much he enjoyed the attention he was getting,’ says one senior party figure.

‘He was actually on the quiet side — a sort of pent-up excitement at being a key player in the battle and rubbing shoulders with the party leaders.’

So sure of his ground was Brown that he publicly criticised what he described as the ‘muppets’ surrounding leader Kennedy. One of those he named was Lord Razzall, who now chuckles about it, though he was said to be ‘furious’ at the time.

Brown, now 45, was spending part of his time in London with his wife Sharon, at their sumptuous house in Hampstead.

He also lived in Majorca, where he not only had an office but — in common with the island’s richest people — two large and luxurious villas.

One, for use in winter, was in the mountains above the quaint village of Esplores, where holiday neighbours included singer and fellow Scot Annie Lennox, and another was in the southern resort of Port Andratx.

But as clients found their investments disappearing, private investigators were hired to look rather more deeply than the Lib Dems’ consultants into the activities of the plausible Mr Brown.

Then the City of London police became involved. The net was closing. By 2008 Brown was charged with fraud and money laundering. He was given bail, set at £250,000.

Brown couldn’t put his hands immediately on such a sum. Enter Paul Strasburger, a Bath-based business consultant (now retired) who has given the Lib Dems £760,000 in the past six years and had got to know Brown as a fellow benefactor.

Strasburger put up the money. Brown displayed his gratitude by jumping bail and disappearing. Strasburger’s £250,000 was lost.  But why did he put up bail for Brown in the first place?

The Liberal Democrats have been batting away 'mischievous' calls for them to return the dirty £2.4million Brown gave them

The Liberal Democrats have been batting away 'mischievous' calls for them to return the dirty £2.4million Brown gave them

‘He believed in him,’ says his friend Lord Razzall, whom Strasburger joined in the House of Lords in 2010 when he was given a life peerage.

Meanwhile, in Southwark Crown Court, with an empty dock, the jury heard Brown craved social acceptance and obtained it by creating an ‘illusion of wealth and influence’. His ‘extravagant lifestyle’ came through promising investors 50 per cent returns.

What the jury did not hear, however, was how Brown didn’t confine his treachery to mythical oil deals and high finance — he was capable of being much cruder than that.

In 2005, just a few months before making his record-breaking donation to the Lib Dems, he volunteered to help raise money for a children’s charity in Majorca founded by an acquaintance, local British GP, Dr Michael Stoma, who has a medical practice on the holiday island.

‘Brown volunteered to raise half a million Euros — about £350,000 — for a children’s village with a school and hospital we were hoping to build in Ethiopia,’ Dr Stoma recalled yesterday.

Brown organised a charity pro-am golf tournament at the exclusive Andratx Golf Club, followed by dinner. He extended personal invitations to contacts in the City of London. Some flew in on their own private jets.

‘I was certainly very impressed by the gathering,’ says Dr Stoma.

‘Brown told me they were very important people with deep pockets. I was convinced the dream of our village would come true.’

That £350,000 may well have been raised, but none of it reached Dr Stoma. Instead it, too, was used to finance Brown’s extravagant life.

‘He let us down and did enormous harm,’ says the doctor.

As Brown lived a fugitive’s life in the Caribbean, he must have thought himself a veritable Ronnie Biggs. He was a criminal laughing at the law and enjoying the sun just as the Great Train Robber had in Rio de Janeiro.

Brown used various aliases, moving between tropical islands before settling in the Dominican Republic.

There he lived in a series of large villas, playing golf, and changing his appearance by cutting off his  pony-tail, growing a beard, and allowing his dyed hair to turn a natural grey.

As for defrauding people, even on the run it was business as usual.

When he arrived in the Dominican Republic, he let be known that as well as an investor. he was a composer who had written hit songs for U2, one of the world’s biggest pop groups, and had come to the  country because it ‘inspired’ him.

At the same time he set up four companies on different islands and lured investors into his scams. One of these involved £1.5 million of oil which never materialised.

Locally, it is accepted the Dominican police are slow to act in complicated and contentious situations.

But Brown made one big mistake. One of his victims, who lost $200,000 (£140,000), happened to be the brother of a junior minister in the country’s government.

Hence he now languishes in prison awaiting trial and, although the Dominican Republic has no extradition treaty with Britain, it usually throws out criminals after their imprisonment.

Brown’s cars, yachts, plane and houses were all seized long ago.

His wife Sharon, whom he married in 1993, was in telephone touch with him until November 2010. She lived mainly in Majorca but neighbours say she disappeared months ago.

For Brown’s widowed mother, who still lives in Scotland, the pain of his activities is clear.

‘I have nothing to do with my son now,’ she declares. ‘I have not had for many years.’

At the Caledonian Club, to which his late father also belonged, they firmly state he is ‘no longer a member here.’

As for the Liberal Democrats, they have been batting away ‘mischievous’ calls for them to return the dirty £2.4million he gave them.

One suggestion is they should share it out among his victims. Lib Dem leaders quote the Electoral Commission, who ruled they took the money ‘based on the information available to them at the time.’

Nick Clegg’s ailing party doesn’t have that kind of money anyway. They’d need a kindly benefactor to provide it, a ‘walk-in’ perhaps.

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