FIVE Black Country fraudsters have been jailed for their part in stealing more than £8 million from the taxpayer following a six-year investigation by HM Revenue and Customs.

They were part of a 20-strong gang from the West Midlands, Staffordshire and Manchester that “shamelessly” stole the cash over a two-year period through tax offences and money laundering linked to the construction industry.

Investigators uncovered a large and complex web of illegal activity involving more than 100 businesses. Subcontractors were employed ‘off-record’ and the gang members pocketed income tax and national insurance contributions due to be paid to HMRC.

Fake invoices, supposedly for providing labour, had also been created to claim VAT refunds, to which the gang were not entitled.

HMRC investigators carried out searches at more than 40 residential and business premises across the UK in September 2009.

They seized paperwork, computers, class A drugs and almost £170,000 in cash from 11 business properties in the West Midlands and Manchester.

Smaller quantities of US dollars and Euros were also discovered.

All defendants have now been sentenced following three separate trials at Birmingham Crown Court, the last finishing on Wednesday July 30, and reporting restrictions have been been removed.

Construction boss Bernard Harper, aged 58, of Causey Farm Road, Halesowen, was described by His Honour Judge Simon Carr as “the centre of the fraud and an organiser of it”.

He was jailed for eight years and disqualified from acting as a company director for 10 years.

Anthony Smith, aged 36, of Mill Street, Brierley Hill, admitted cheating the revenue and was jailed for five years and one month.

Smith, a former bank manager, was described by the judge as Harper’s “lieutenant and the office manager” when he was not present.

Kelly Nicholls, aged 36, of Mill Street, Brierley Hill, was jailed for five years for producing invoices and helping with administration tasks connected to the fraud.

Susan Coussens, aged 55, of Chestnut Close, Norton was found guilty of the same offence and jailed for four years.

Accountant Steven Jeremy Bache, aged 52, of Leys Close, Stourbridge, was found guilty of using his expertise to evade HMRC controls. He was jailed for three-and-a-half years and prohibited from acting as a company director for seven years.

Speaking after the final sentencing, Colin Booker, assistant director criminal investigation at HMRC, said: “This brings to an end a six-year investigation, centred on a highly organised and complex fraud, undertaken by a group of individuals who cared for nothing but their own financial gain.

“HMRC is investing more time and resources than ever into identifying fraud. Our work does not stop at sentencing, but at depriving those involved of the proceeds of their crimes.

“Confiscation action will follow, as we attempt to recoup some of the £8 million the gang so shamelessly stole from the taxpayer.”