A former Luton Town footballer, who played almost 100 games for the Hatters, has been sentenced to six years in prison for a £5million apprenticeship fraud.
Mark Aizlewood, who joined the Town for £50,000 in 1978, went on to make 98 league appearances in midfield and defence before departing for Charlton in 1982.
But on Monday at Southwark Crown Court, the former Wales international, 57, of Aberdare, was sent to jail for his part in a fraud scheme that targeted colleges, charities, football clubs and sports associations.
Aizlewood and five co-defendants ran Luis Michael Training Ltd which fraudulently obtained around £5m of public funds, earmarked by the Skills Funding Agency to create apprenticeships for vulnerable young people.
Approaching further education colleges as a subcontractor, Luis Michael Training claimed it would provide training services to create football coaching apprenticeships for young people. Instead, the company set about creating a fraudulent scheme.
From its launch in 2009 and throughout its operation Luis Michael Training Ltd provided apprentices with little, if any, of the required training to qualify as football coaches and even signed up ‘ghost learners’, stealing identities to create apprentices out of thin air.
The company took every step to appear legitimate, even obtaining endorsements from former football stars such as Ian Rush, relying on their reputation to convince colleges, football clubs and apprentices that their scheme was genuine.
Thousands of vulnerable young people became victims of the fraud. Cheated out of proper training through the bogus apprenticeship scheme, most never received the qualifications they had signed up for, nor the football coaching jobs promised.
Sixth formers on work experience were even co-opted into the scam, tasked with filling out assessment tests in the names of apparent apprentices so Luis Michael Training could show colleges that their ‘students’ were meeting scheme requirements.
Under the Skills Funding Agency apprenticeship scheme, Luis Michael Training would receive payments for apprentices placed with an employer who met the eligibility requirements.
The company instead bypassed requirements, forging paperwork and financial statements to siphon off education funding.
Colleges targeted lost more than £3.5m to the fraud, causing serious financial hardship and reducing funding available for other school services, classes and courses.
Nearly 150 football clubs, sports associations, and charities were also tricked into providing services to Luis Michael Training, never receiving payment for work provided, hampering their ability to support grassroots community projects and other outreach programmes.
Sentencing the men, His Honour Judge Tomlinson said: “This was a shameful exploitation of taxpayers and colleges. You misappropriated eye-watering sums of Government money on the pretence of helping disadvantaged young people. You all exploited this sad state of affairs and your involvement was dishonest from the outset.”
SFO General Counsel Alun Milford said: “These men stole public money intended to give young people a start in life – these were cynical crimes for which they have been held to account today.”