Bent lawyer who claimed God was on his side
Stephen David Jones was a good guy. A god-fearing, bespectacled fellow with bounds of British eccentricity that endeared aristocrats and big American investors to take up legal services with his firm – a tax consultancy called Jirehouse, which he operated from an impressive wood-panelled house on John Street in Bloomsbury. He was ‘super-English, upper-class, charming, cool and cultivated,’ one former client says. A regular evangelical with City smarts. The kind you could count on to manage your trust – or the purchase of your latest Scottish castle – and gold-plate your future. Or so they all thought.
But the prophet was a thief. Like a plotline ripped from HBO’s Better Call Saul, Jones is alleged to have syphoned off tens of millions of pounds from his clients.
He was unmasked in December 2022, in a case that stunned London’s upper crust. Stone-faced in the docks of Southwark Crown Court, Jones, now 63, pled guilty to defrauding the Discovery Land Company to the tune of about £13m (a successful private prosecution brought by the US company). He was handed 12 years for two counts of fraud. It was the longest sentence ever given to a British lawyer. And so, the crook was canned. Struck off; accused of ‘rank dishonesty’ by the judge; branded ‘Britain’s most corrupt solicitor’ by the press. His wife and son sobbed into the defence team’s shoulders as Jones clutched his overnight belongings in a Waitrose tote bag and left his freedom behind.
Back in his glory days, God was always at the centre of Jones’ alleged plot. Clients entering his office might have been lulled into a sense of security by the plaque bearing ‘God will see’ – a line from Genesis – in the Hebrew language and script. Or the meeting rooms, each named after books from the Old Testament: Genesis, Exodus and Numbers. Or the Jirehouse website, which assured it ‘took its inspiration from Judaeo-Christian teachings which recognise the value of people before profit and the need to invest today for the benefit of future generations.’ This, it clearly seemed, was a holy pair of hands.
Extra special clients/friends, all the same according to Jones’ gospel, were even invited to his early-morning prayer meetings. And if it made them think, as some did, of a religious cult leader, their misgivings were assuaged by the heavenly returns that he promised. ‘He would say that he was a Christian, and he interpreted this to mean, professional and personal relationships intermingled,’ says one former client.
After all, Jones had a successful career behind him. He read Law at Reading, and, after qualifying as a solicitor in 1986. started out in 1987 at Freshfields, the crème de la crème of City firms when it comes to tax-management, where he stayed for three years. This was followed by three years at the equally prestigious Slaughter and May in Hong Kong, the ‘Real Madrid of the Legal World’. There’s a partners’ dining room in the London HQ, and Jones almost had a seat for lunch when he returned to base to meet colleagues.
Nearly, until he had some sort of diabolical epiphany, that is. A ‘religious experience,’ he once said.
A former client remembers his tale: ‘he told me that, just before he was due to be made partner at Slaughters, he woke up and [realised] “God told me that day to quit.” So he quit.’ Off Jones went to Central Asia, where, for two years, he abandoned the law and began a business exporting nuts in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.
But clearly, he couldn’t resist the big smoke and its international bevvy of fat cats with even fatter portfolios. Returning to London in the mid-1990s, he founded Jirehouse in 1995 with some colleagues.
To any onlooker, his life was coming together virtuously: he bought a mansion flat in Maida Vale, got married and had a son. He also became a regular at the well-heeled Holy Trinity Brompton – HTB to those in the know – which teaches the evangelical Alpha programme, and at All Souls, Langham Place, the distinctive spire-topped John Nash church directly opposite Broadcasting House. In these exclusive places of worship, his saintly persona found favour with deep-pocketed congregants. Many engaged his services.
He had a headmaster-like energy and a vocabulary of jargon-rich tax terminology that particularly appealed to earnest men. ‘He spread work which should have taken one day over five months, and charged me £900 an hour – and he was useless. I started by becoming his friend and, when I became his client, I found it hard to get out of his grip… his arrogance was astonishing.’
Jones’ method was simple. He used his Christian good-doer persona and intelligent charm to trap the unsuspecting. And, for 30 years, he got away with it, stealing vast sums from clients into financial black holes, never to be recovered or even located.
Some families went to him for tax advice and others for investment advice – he was noted for his ‘aggressive’ consultancy; his familiarity with the most secretive of the offshore havens. Notably St Kitts and Nevis, but his company also had representation in Panama, Luxembourg, Switzerland and the Netherlands. His was a network of complex structures, linking between the havens and using a variety of legal structures – such as trusts and foundations – to give clients anonymity. Catnip to the property princes of London.
Jones’ operation was obsessively managed. ‘He was a control freak,’ says one client. Employees were directed to send every email they received to Jones. He recruited staff who would pose a minimal challenge to his highly unorthodox, not to say criminal, ways. One Jirehouse accountant tells me they were responsible for offshore trusts and foundations ranging from £500,000 pounds to £43 million pounds, restructuring client trust entities to improve tax efficiency, flying just below the radar of tax authorities. Another consultant linked to Jirehouse specialised in wealth structuring and tax planning. It was aggressive advice that took advantage of London’s lax controls on tax evasion.
And many of them met Jones in the church pews, where he discreetly promoted his services. A bona fide solicitor, he was trusted to protect their assets – whether land, money or funds – from spouses, authorities and other businessmen. Take Scott Young, the billionaire property developer who, it is claimed, hired Jones to cook the books before a divorce settlement, creating what Young’s ex-wife later called a ‘sham bankruptcy’. (In 2014, Young was found impaled on a basement railing in Marylebone, after ‘falling from a fifth-floor window’ – a ‘suicide’ thought to be a murder).
The problem is, Jones had a terrible habit of hiding assets from the actual clients, too… And while the offshore world was part of his armoury of theft, he also used bogus letters to banks and other professionals to do it.
There’s John Dunne, the serial property developer from Esher who claims he almost lost his house when he discovered Jones had secretly put a mortgage on it. And an international family who found that their property had been used by Jones as collateral on which to raise millions for himself. In both cases, he used his trustee’s status to persuade a bank to put a lien on the assets. The money was paid into Jones’ account – and, in the latter case, he serviced the loan under the radar until he went to prison. That’s when the client discovered in horror his house was effectively mortgaged.
‘I paid him £500,000. To give me my own companies back!’ says one female financier who hired Jones to fight a client who was allegedly hiding money he owed her in tax havens. Her nightmare doubled, as Jones proceeded to tie her up in so many knots with legal structures, he eventually took over the very assets he said he was able to bring back to her. ‘He used my money to construct a system where he owned my assets,’ she says. ‘Can you imagine? I considered legal action against him at the time. And I was advised just to let it go, that it would be too difficult to sue a lawyer in England and all the rest of it”.
Others would suffer from his diabolical behaviour alternatively. I speak to a man, still in palpable shock, who in 2019 faced a false allegation of sexually harassing one of Jones’s associates. ‘Attempted blackmail’ he calls it – after he refused to surrender his companies and assets to Jirehouse.
But the Lord seemingly didn’t warn him against John Dejoria. The 78-year-old American, owner of luxury real estate developer Discovery Land, self-made billionaire and philanthropist who – after years of fighting – toppled the thief.
In 2018, Taymouth Castle was up for sale. The beautiful but dilapidated former seat of the Marquesses of Breadalbane; a vast neo-Gothic wonder frequently visited by Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. Reduced to a crumbling wreck, it was languishing after a failed attempt to turn it into a luxury golf resort – and it was ripe for development. The cost? £10m. And Dejoria had his eye on the prize for Discovery Land. All he needed was legal representation.
It was the British land agent, Henry Anderson, an amiable, privately-educated west Londoner in his 30s, who introduced him to Jones. (Ironically, he claims he was himself fleeced for £500,000, in the process.) Jirehouse was hired to assist with the transaction in April 2018. Discovery paid over £9,620,000 to Jones in May and it vanished into a black hole. Jones failed to come up with the paperwork; the sale appeared stuck. Come November, the sellers were starting to wonder what had happened: this is when what the prosecution called Jones’ ‘deliberate series of sophisticated stalling tactics’ were deployed.
There was a problem with the source of funds, claimed Jones. The purchase of the castle was now at risk. To resolve the issue, he suggested Discovery transfer another nearly £10m to Jirehouse. He would return the original funds as soon as the earlier compliance issue was resolved, naturally. (In fact, he had sent the money to two offshore accounts, as yet undisclosed.) The purchase was completed in December, but the £10m was still blocked. This, Jones blamed on a ‘random audit issue’ at Barclays; then issues with Dejoria’s family trust. In January 2019, Jones sent the police a suspicious activity report (a legal anti money laundering protection) against Dejoria, as a ruse to slow down the pay back. He needed permission, so he said, to handle the money. That was resolved by March 2019, at which point Jones produced bogus bank documents to prove to Discovery’s forensic lawyers that he still had the original cash.
One might ask how an American business tycoon was tricked by a Bloomsbury-based lawyer into paying twice for a £10 million Highlands castle, but the reality is that Jones just couldn’t stop bluffing. Despite several complaints, neither the police nor the CPS showed any interest in prosecuting. And so he kept nose to grindstone. At his eventual sentencing, Jude Griffith said, ‘your heart must have leapt when you heard the CPS and the police had decided not to prosecute such an obviously prosecutable case.’
But the Bloomsbury boy chose the wrong billionaire to pick on. Disillusioned by the British criminal system, later in March, Discovery started civil proceedings to get Jones to disclose the whereabouts of the money. He refused to part with the information, was held in contempt of court and sent off for his first stint in prison: 14 months.
Buoyed after proving the civil charges, Discovery Land launched a separate private criminal prosecution, in the face of British authorities’ seeming indifference. An unusual step, but the Discovery lawyers rightly saw their case as valid. And this was Jones’ real undoing, ending in his eventual imprisonment for 12 years. For the chic, riche congregations of HTP and Langham, it was surely a head-scratcher.
How much his family knew is unclear. Did Jones’s wife and son think their Maida Vale mansion flat had been obtained legitimately? Or the £1.6 million offshore trust fund, of which they were beneficiaries? No such luck. The first they are said to have heard of any accusations was when Jones told them he faced the civil case in 2018.
Jones is a man who took advantage of everything: the goodwill of fellow worshipers, the naivety of flush youngsters; and millions of pounds that had been entrusted to him. So where is it now, all that cash? It is thought Jones passed on some of Discovery’s loot to clients who had lost money from investments he had arranged in a uranium mine in India and a hotel in Reykjavík; some might have funded unsuccessful legal battles with the government and a local landowner on Nevis, where he planned to build an upscale resort. It had been a favoured hideaway for some of his clients’ money, after all, so it’s likely he took advantage of it, too.