A pair of landlords were instrumental in the long battle to bring fraudster agent Andre Montaut to justice.
Montaut, who ran Barrington Property, was this week jailed for 25 months and banned from being a director for five years at Aylesbury Crown Court. Some 26 landlords had to reimburse a total of £70,000 worth of deposits to their tenants after the money vanished.
The one who fought longest and arguably hardest sadly died in February.
Geoff Whaley, who first contacted EYE back in 2013 about the case, died at Dignitas in Switzerland after suffering from motor neurone disease.
He and his wife Ann had a property that used to belong to her mother, and which they rented out through Montaut’s agency after she died.
They only knew that the deposit had vanished when the tenant was leaving and asked for the money back.
Geoff Whaley alerted the police, organised and attended victims’ meetings, and kept up the pressure for justice. He also successfully pressurised tenancy deposit scheme My Deposits into tightening up its systems, according to his widow.
He fought to the very end, his widow said yesterday, because he was incensed that Montaut had continued to work in the property industry after the fraud for which he has now been sentenced.
Mrs Whaley said: “In January this year, the month before he died, we heard that Montaut was due to appear at magistrates court.
“Ill as he was, and totally paralysed from the neck down, Geoff was determined to attend. We went there – him in his electric wheelchair – and waited and waited.
“Then we were told that the case had been escalated to the crown court.
“So Geoff was at least able to die knowing that finally, justice might be in sight.”
How would her husband now feel?
“He had a word, ‘geronimo’, whenever he sensed victory. I think he’d be sitting in heaven with a glass of red wine, saying ‘geronimo’.”
Another victim, Mary Austen (not the real name) of Gerrards Cross, also fought long and hard for almost seven years for justice.
Austen has also kept a timeline which vividly portrays the length of time, the delays, paperwork and people involved since January 2013 – Montaut had actually committed the crime between May and November 2012, according to his guilty plea.
No fewer than three different police officers were put in charge of the case between January 2013 and this month, working under four different senior officers, while there were three successive Thames Valley chief constables, all of whom knew of the case.
Correspondence included letters to and from MPs and the chief constables; there were three different victims’ meetings; and constant phone calls to police asking about progress.
The case was first submitted to the Crown Prosecution Service in October 2014 but, says Austen, “fizzled out”.
It was referred a second time to the CPS in February 2016, and submitted a third time in September that year.
Charging decisions were delayed repeatedly throughout 2017, and finally Montaut was charged with two counts of fraud in January 2018.
Court proceedings were delayed and rescheduled repeatedly, stretching the whole court process out for 536 days until sentencing on Tuesday this week.
It is not quite over: a proceeds of crime hearing originally scheduled for September 9 is now due on November 25.
If Montaut is ordered to pay his victims, they are unlikely to receive any money until next February 17.
If that final date is correct, the whole matter, from the theft of deposits to the end, will have taken an incredible 3,180 days.
Questions raised by the case
Andre Montaut committed his fraud while running Barrington Property, where he used the insurance scheme at My Deposits for tenancy deposit protection.
The case does raise questions as to the ability of agents who use these non-custodial schemes to hang on to the actual money, while insuring it – an insurance that meant nothing for the 26 landlords who had to repay their tenants.
In Scotland, for example, there are no insurance-backed tenancy deposit schemes.
In England, there has been a tightening up this year, with letting agents now legally required to keep client and business money in separate accounts and to have Client Money Protection.
Last night My Deposits welcomed the sentencing.
Eddie Hooker said: “Being part of a wider insurance related business, My Deposits has always taken risk seriously especially in respect of fraud and theft.
“It was our rigorous vetting of this particular agent member by our risk team, especially their bank statements and financial management reports, that alerted us to the original issue. Our evidence was crucial in the conviction of this particular individual.
“We continue to check all our agent members and to help them understand the laws of deposit protection and operating a compliant agency.”
There are also questions raised about Montaut’s career, as he was also associated with two highly reputable brands.
At the end of 2011, Montaut joined Winkworth, with Barrington Property being publicly greeted by Winkworth as a good example “of the sort of franchise we look for”.
It is not known how long the arrangement lasted for and Winkworth yesterday declined to comment.
After his fraud at Barrington Property, Montaut went to work for Chancellors.
Chancellors yesterday told us: “We have been made aware that Andre Montaut, who is an ex-employee of ours, has been sentenced to prison after pleaded guilty to a fraudulent offence in the legal case that was brought against him.
“These matters relate to events occurring prior to his employment with us and there has been no suggestion of improper behaviour by him as part of his employment with us.
“We have not been party to the investigations the authorities have made into these matters and have not been involved in the court proceedings that have concluded with his sentencing.
“We therefore do not have knowledge of events beyond what is in the public domain and we cannot comment further on this matter.”