'The blind leading the blind' - what it was like to work for the Ipswich company that collapsed with a £25m hole in its accounts
PUBLISHED: 19:30 04 February 2019 | UPDATED: 08:28 05 February 2019
A former employee has spoken out about what it was like to work for Stephen Long, the alleged fraudster accused of ripping off hundreds of pensioners, who is currently in jail for contempt after failing to help former clients track down £25m of missing funds.
The Eastern Region Specialist Operations Unit (ERSOU), which tackles serious organised crime, says more than 100 reports of possible fraudulent activity have been received in relation to Universal Asset Protection and associated companies.
Hundreds of victims saw their savings disappear after the collapse of the business. They had been enticed into entrusting their money to Universal Wealth Preservation Trust by claims it could avoid their heirs’ inheritance being swallowed by care home fees and the taxman.
The former employee, from Stowmarket, was 22 when she worked for Universal Asset Protection.
“I only worked for them for about five months (until October 2016), because I didn’t feel comfortable about what was going on and got out of there as soon as I could,” she said. “I was desperate to get out, even though it meant being without a job just before Christmas.”
She explained that she was brought into the company’s head office on White House Road in Ipswich to work in its drafting team and, despite having only just completed her paralegal qualifications, was quickly made team leader.
“At first, I thought it was exciting, because I was a team leader,” she said.
“But the warning signs were there in the way that the legal team was set up - I knew a bit about how to draft, but nothing too complicated.”
A brochure entitled ‘Universal Wealth Preservation’ was produced by Universal Asset Protection and was given out to potential clients attending its marketing seminars, stating that the company’s “expert team” includes solicitors, chartered legal executives, accountants, tax advisers and trust experts, “who are able to combine their skills and decades of experience to deliver specialist solutions that are not generally available on the high street”.
But the former employee says that “people fresh out of university were being made associates, which seemed crazy to me”.
“It felt like a case of the blind leading the blind,” she said. “I was training people to use systems, but no one knew what they were doing. We were in trouble all the time for not doing things right.
“It was just a mess.”
No criminal charges have yet been brought against Mr Long yet, who was director of the company, but he is now facing 27 damages claims from families amidst what lawyers described in court as “cogent evidence” of a “massive fraud”.
He is alleged by the families to have used clients’ money to prop up his businesses and of transferring millions abroad, where the money has disappeared.
The former employee explained that she didn’t work closely with Mr Long, and says her concerns were never him.
“Stephen was always approachable. He put us into academy courses and gave us information on what we needed to know. “It was others in the business that worried me.
“But when he started not being around very much, alarm bells started ringing for me. He promised to give people the earth and it never materialised. Clients were complaining.
“Instead of tackling the issues they had, the company took on more consultants, but didn’t have the legal team in place to draft all the resulting documents.”
She also spoke of the “immense pressure” she feels that Universal Asset Protection put on its staff, particularly those in the legal team.
“It was as though the legal team was running the company,” she said. “It made me feel like I didn’t want to get out of bed and go to work in the mornings.”
When Universal Asset Protection went into compulsory liquidation in May, 100 staff lost their jobs, and Ms Jackson says she had been told that many of them were not paid all of their final salary. It was her understanding that several staff tried to pursue their unpaid wages through legal channels, but no one could find Mr Long, so there was a lot of “hoo haa” surrounding it.
“I was not surprised at all when the company collapsed, it was just a blessing in disguise that I wasn’t still there at that point,” she added.