Harlequin Property Scheme – The “Harlequin Group”Go back
A case study into a £400 million scam.
What was Harlequin?
The Harlequin group is a well know collection of companies involved in the marketing, sales and development of overseas investment properties.
It sold speculative overseas property developments to retail investors.
These were primarily in planned luxury Caribbean holiday resorts operated by offshore Harlequin overseas resort development companies. The companies dealt with the marketing, sale and construction of resorts on the Caribbean islands of St Vincent and Grenadines, St Lucia, Barbados, the Cayman Islands and also in South America, in Brazil.
Using glossy brochures, smooth marketing events and the public endorsement of celebrities, including former sports stars such as the tennis player Pat Cash, the golfer Gary Player and the footballer Andy Townsend, TV property guru Phil Spencer and Liverpool football club, investors were persuaded buy off-plan holiday cabanas and apartments across the resorts.
Investors, and the financial advisers pushing the investment, were attracted by pitches at high-profile sales events in golf clubs, conference centres and exhibition centres across the UK. Harlequin’s appeal was bolstered by stars such as the Wimbledon champion Cash, who was to endorse tennis academies at the resorts, Player, a nine-times winner of major golfing championships who it was said was to design a golf course at a resort, and, according to Harlequin’s promotional YouTube video, Liverpool FC, which would be associated with football training at the resorts.
Additionally, Harlequin Properties first appeared to many investors in calls from unregulated marketing companies, these were cold-calling firms who’d ring up, seemingly “out-of-the-blue”, usually to offer a pension review.
Promoted by a UK registered company, Harlequin Management Services (South East) Limited, the scheme was appealing to many investors. Through UK-based IFAs and SIPP providers (and sometimes directly) customers purchased various off-plan luxury property development investments and hotel rooms.
The scheme saw £400 million worth of investments.
The Ames family
Harlequin Group was linked to companies owned by chairman David Ames and his family. Ames, now 70, who was twice bankrupted through companies selling garden furniture and windows, and had experience of timeshare, set up the Harlequin group in 2005. Ames had been temporarily barred from serving as a company director due to his previous bankruptcy and therefore was the “chairman of Harlequin”.
As the self-styled “highly charismatic” Harlequin chair, Ames believed he was a “visionary”. He was in charge of the day-to-day running of Harlequin, with his wife, Carole, and son Dan, as directors. Another son, Matthew, who in 2014 was imprisoned for three years for a fraudulent carbon credit investment scheme, managed marketing.
The family enriched themselves by £6.2m through the Harlequin business, enjoying a luxury lifestyle flying to and from the Caribbean, with Ames employing his own chauffeur. Some family members were paid £10,000 a month. Ames also tried to build his own airline, Harlequin Air, to fly guests to and from the resorts.
The Harlequin Business Model
Ames made publicity a key priority, promising celebrity-sponsored tennis, golf and football academies with marketing videos in which he personally explains his vision for the resorts.
Predicting major tourism development opportunities, he even secured the endorsement of politicians in the region, including the prime ministers of Barbados, St Lucia, and St Vincent and the Grenadines.
The Harlequin Group used 2,000 to 3,000 intermediary sales agents, some of them on commissions as high as 10% of the purchase price, as well as a network of independent financial advisers (IFA’s) who were incentivised by 10% commissions with no claw-backs, even if the investor subsequently dropped out.
Approximately 8,000 investors invested a total of around £400m in the projects, with in some cases the same property being sold to multiple investors. Investors paid a £1,000 reservation fee and a 30 percent deposit.
The business model relied upon investors paying the 30 percent deposit to purchase an unbuilt villa or hotel room, Investors were told that the building of the properties would be further funded by external financial backing. Half of the investors 30 percent went toward fees for Harlequin and Advisers – or ‘agents’ – who sold the Harlequin investment, while Harlequin put the remaining 15 percent toward construction.
Investor funds were not ringfenced for particular resorts or properties but spent throughout the Harlequin company. With no additional source of funding, more than three properties needed to be purchased to finance just one of the luxury accommodation units. This led to the exponential expansion of the scheme, the diversion of investor money between resorts, and ultimately a funding shortfall of over £1.2 billion by 2012 – seven years after Ames launched the scheme.
In 2011, Ames was advised by restructuring and insolvency practitioners he might be trading while insolvent. But he did not stop selling. In fact he increased sales. By the time the company went into administration in 2013, Harlequin had sold around 9,000 property units to investors, with less than 200 ever actually being constructed and they were all at the same resort, Buccament Bay in St Vincent and the Grenadines which was earmarked as Harlequin’s flagship resort. Throughout the entire eight-year project, only 28 of over 8,000 investors ever completed on a purchase, leaving well over 99 percent with no return on their investment. The Harlequin Group ultimately lost a total of £398 million of investor funds.
The Scheme began to unravel.
The Serious Fraud Office (SFO) started an investigation into Harlequin in 2012. It asked investors to fill in and submit the SFO’s further questionnaire about their investments. By 17 February 2017, the Serious Fraud Office had enough information to charge David Ames, as chairman of the Harlequin Group of companies, with three counts of Fraud by Abuse of Position, contrary to section 1 of the Fraud Act 2006. The charges were brought in relation to activity which occurred between January 2010 and June 2015.
The SFO attended a Pre-Trial Review hearing a Southwark Crown Court on 31 January 2019 at which HHJ Loraine Smith set a trial date of 20 April 2020. The charges covered the period from 2010 – and not from the time of 2005 when Harlequin was set up – because by then the state of the business was such he must have known he was exposing investors to risk, the court heard. The SFO argued Harlequin’s business model was fundamentally flawed.
The Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) first published a warning to the public on the 17th June 2013 it said:
“If you are considering investing with the Harlequin group of companies you should do so with caution and firstly get independent legal and financial advice. The Harlequin group of companies is involved in the development and distribution of overseas property investments and resorts. None of these companies are regulated by us. We urge all investors who are considering investing with Harlequin to seek independent legal and financial advice before committing to any investment. We suggest this includes independent legal advice in the country where the property or investment is located.”
While the SFO investigation was ongoing, Ames blamed Harlequin’s failure on his accountants, Wilkins Kennedy, whom he said were negligent, and on his Irish building contractors, ICE, which he said defrauded him. He also blamed a “Harlecon” website set up to raise concerns about the company, as well as the global economic crisis, the tightening of regulations over SIPP investments and the investigation into him.
The SFO uncovered how he repeatedly ignored warnings that the business was likely insolvent, while concealing this reality and continuing to sell more units to investors. Ames sacked associates who raised the alarm, and on one occasion told colleagues that concerned investors needed “to be put in their place” to avoid attracting “bad press”.
Ames threatened legal action against investors who went public with complaints and the BBC over its reporting on Harlequin. The Harlequin Chairman sued builders ICE and the accountants Wilkins Kennedy.
Harlequin paid ICE $52m (£45m) to build the Buccament Bay resort, with no written contract, or any detailed agreement over scope, monitoring or valuation of works.
In 2013, ICE boss Padraig (Paudie) O’Halloran was ordered by an Irish court to pay €1.57m (£1.38m) in damages to Ames over misappropriating Harlequin funds to his personal bank accounts. There was “persuasive” evidence, the judge heard, of O’Halloran diverting other substantial sums from Harlequin to items unconnected to Buccament Bay, including buying a private jet, a racetrack in St Lucia, expensive gifts including a $65,000 diamond ring for his girlfriend, a quarry and renting an expensive mansion in Barbados.
In separate civil proceedings in London, Ames claimed negligence by Wilkins Kennedy, whose partner Martin MacDonald was alleged to be too close to O’Halloran. A high court judge awarded Ames $11.6m, only half the amount claimed in damages, because of Ames’s contributory negligence, and also ordered the amount be placed in an escrow account, to ring fence it for investors.
The SFO case against David Ames was heard in 2022 at Southwark Crown Court, The Court heard how Ames sold to a large number of people with Self-Invested Personal Pensions (“SIPPs”) before regulations were tightened in 2012, many of them elderly with little investing experience. The SFO presented the court with victim statements, detailing the personal impact suffered by these investors.
Countless investors were forced to delay their retirement, having lost their pensions and life savings. Many victims continue to struggle with financial hardship, some having re-mortgaged their homes and continuing to repay outstanding debts. The SFO said several thousand victims lost pensions and life savings to the fraud, while Ames enriched himself and his family by £6.2mn.
The court heard how this led to breakdowns in some investors’ relationships, rifts within families and various health conditions suspected to have been induced by stress, anxiety and depression.
On 3 August 2022, the SFO successfully convicted David Ames as a jury found him guilty of two counts of fraud by abuse of position. The SFO investigation and case, led by Michael Bowes QC, uncovered how Ames deceived over 8,000 UK investors in the Harlequin Group, a hotel, and resorts development venture. As Harlequin reached insolvency the court was told by an expert accountant that investors were exposed to a near 100 percent risk of loss, Ames did not contest. Victims had been led to believe they had a secure investment in property whereas, in reality, Harlequin Group was never operating as promised.
Lisa Osofsky, Director, Serious Fraud Office, said: “David Ames committed fraud on a huge scale, knowingly exposing thousands of UK investors to losses totalling hundreds of millions of pounds.
“Diligent SFO investigators reviewed millions of documents, traced over 8,000 investor deposits and called on more than 25 witnesses, to expose the full extent of Ames’ deception.”
In addition to a 12 year prison sentence, Ames was also disqualified as a company director for 15 years
What happens to Investors now?
The Financial Services Compensation Scheme (FSCS) has released information on how the recovery of money for clients from the Harlequin group is progressing. The lifeboat fund says it has recovered just under £300m from failed financial services firms since 2014.
The FSCS is currently pursuing recoveries against various Harlequin entities, largely through the insolvencies which are already afoot in the UK, St Vincent and the Grenadines, St Lucia, Barbados, and the Cayman Islands. It cites a KPMG report from 2017 which contains photos of incomplete and dilapidated buildings from some of the resort properties in Buccament Bay. The FSCS says there are many reasons the Harlequin developments failed but, ultimately, investor funds were not used to develop the resorts.
2,700 Investors advised by now defaulted IFA’s have been able claim a total of £125m through FSCS. However, the remaining half of investors – many who put in money from their self-invested personal pension (SIPP) – lost thousands. Among victims are many of pensionable age, now forced to work on into retirement. Some investors would only get back one or two pennies for every pound they had invested.
In a word of caution the Financial Conduct Authority has warned previous investors in receipt of compensation that before the court case, Harlequin even approached investors who might have received redress from a compensation scheme, such as the Financial Services Compensation Scheme, to encourage them to complete on a Harlequin property investment.
Harlequin has become an example of what can go wrong with high-risk and unregulated overseas property developments, right from the way it was sold by a network of marketing companies who cold-called their targets, and Independent Financial Advisers who mis-sold it, to where it is today – with the various companies in insolvency proceedings, and their chairman appearing in court under charges of fraud.
The investments were at best high risk and not easily transferred or cashed in and so were unsuitable for most customers or “retail investors” (people less experienced in making investments).
There have already been hundreds of successful claims to the Financial Ombudsman Service and Financial Services Compensation Scheme in relation to Harlequin investments.
If you have lost money through any such investments that were unsuitable for you because they were too risky, illiquid (they cannot be transferred or cashed in easily) or for any other reason you may have a claim.
Contact APJ to see how we maybe able to help.