An accountant is sharing the story of how she was jailed after getting caught up in a £46.5M mafia wine tax swindle – maintaining that she is “innocent” and just wants to “rebuild” her life.
Louisa Mbadugha, now 65, took a job with The Italian Wine Company LTD back in September 2001, because it was close to home.
At the time, she was caring for her mother, who was suffering from cancer until her death in November that same year.
In 2013, following a fraud squad investigation into the wine company’s boss, Livio Mazzarello, HMRC and police did a joint raid at the brand’s warehouse in Neasden, London.
Their findings uncovered that now 62-year-old crime boss Mazzarello avoided paying tax by selling thousands of cases of fine wines “under the counter” for cash.
Louisa was subsequently also arrested and charged with evasion of excise duty and evasion of VAT.
“When I was arrested, I was in shock,” Louisa told Jam Press.“There was nothing incriminating in my family home but police took a panettone of all things, and never returned it.
“I shared the house with my brother and I was so embarrassed that he – and the neighbours – witnessed everything.
“I swore to the officers that I had no idea about an illegal operation as I was taken to the station.
“I was arrested and charged because my records didn’t include the illegal wine and money that hadn’t been declared, but my argument remains that these sales and imports were not declared by me – I was not aware of them.
“A lot of the documents were also in Italian, which I don’t speak, read or understand.
“It took four years after my arrest for a trial to be held.
“When I was questioned in Crown Court I found it difficult to remember a lot of information.
“The trial was overwhelming and I was in deep shock.
“After my sentencing, I had no expectation that I’d be taken down to the cells and jailed immediately, I was so naive.
“Once they got me to the cells, I burst out crying.
“I remember just sitting on the bed and staring at nothing.
“I wanted the ground to swallow me up, I was not sure that I could live with the embarrassment of being imprisoned.
“For two weeks, I couldn’t eat or sleep.
“Eventually another inmate said to me, ‘don’t let them break you’ – and I repeated this to myself daily.”
Louisa was sentenced on 14 June 2017 as Judge Philip Katz QC, told her she was not a “main organiser but a salaried employee at a high level”.
The judge added: “I bear in mind this sentence will destroy your working life and I am taking a merciful approach.”
She was jailed for three and a half years in 2017 and returned to prison in October 2021 after failing to pay back her salary following a proceeds of crime hearing.
During the raid of the warehouse, police found £350,000 in cash hidden above ceiling tiles and stashed in a secret safe, and 70,000 litres of wine stored in barrels with unpaid duty.
A spokesperson for HMRC said the extent of the fraud amounted to approximately £46.5M between the period of 6 June 2008 and 17 April 2023.
Louisa claims: “The bosses kept me so busy, I was always chasing my tail.
“I always had admin to do and they seemed unorganised to me – I was constantly chasing for information.
“But I swear I never had any hint that there was illegal activity going on.
“The judge told me I had been ‘fooled by crooks’ and of course, I ask myself all the time how could I have done anything differently, but I could only work with what I knew.
“Prison was hard, but as a mature woman, I was mostly left alone.
“I tried to be firm and respectful to others and asked the same in return.
“I was never hurt or abused, I feel lucky for that.
“I kept myself busy with visits from my brother and I read books and worked on my legal appeals.”
Louisa was released on 30 May 2022 after eight months when she managed to secure loans to pay HMRC £199,586.07.
Prior to her conviction, she had been an accountant for 27 years and held the prestigious role of President of the UK Women Accountants for five years before being struck off.
Although she is eager to “rebuild her life”, the former accountant is struggling to find work due to her criminal record, and is forced to rely on family support and Universal Credit to survive.
To make matters worse, she has been saddled with over half a million in debt due to legal fees and credit card bills and also faces having to pay £42,000 in interest related to her salary to HRMC.
She said: “Life is hard.
“I am under enormous stress and pressure.
“My debts from legal fees, bridging finance and credit cards are over £550,000.
“I am also being taken to court by HMRC for another £42,000 of interest related to my salary that I repaid in 2022.
“I find it extraordinary that this is how things have worked out.
“I worked so hard for the company, I barely had time to look up from my desk and they wanted me in the building at all hours.
“Now I don’t give any thought to my old bosses.
“I have to focus on not letting this break me – I will fight to clear my name until the day I die.
“At the moment I take each day at a time, but I am fighting fires as they erupt.
“In the future, I hope to be able to work again and earn a good living.
“I would like to move into the property renovation sector and rebuild my reputation, but it is so difficult after being in prison.
“There is very little support for people to be rehabilitated after prison and because of that it is no wonder people re-offend.
“I wish there was a support system for people like me who have been caught up in crime and need a way back to normality but it doesn’t exist and it is so scary to do this alone.
“I need all the help I can get.”