By Sarah O'Connor
DUBLIN (Reuters) - Once Ireland's richest man, Sean Quinn was found guilty of contempt on Tuesday and may go to jail after a court ruled that the bankrupt businessman had blocked a state bank from seizing property worth hundreds of millions of euros (dollars).
Quinn, whose four-billion-euro ($5-billion) business empire collapsed after a disastrous investment in now-nationalized Anglo Irish Bank, is being pursued by the bank for debts of almost 3 billion euros.
The Irish Banking Resolution Corporation (IBRC), created from the remains of Anglo, asked the High Court to declare Quinn in contempt for violating an order not to interfere with foreign property assets worth an estimated 500 million euros.
"I find it impossible to accept his evidence that he had no hand in matters after April 2011, his evidence is not credible," Justice Elizabeth Dunne told a packed courtroom in one of the most keenly anticipated judgments of Ireland's financial crisis.
"They have engaged in a complex series of steps designed to put the assets beyond reach ... in a blatant, dishonest and deceitful manner," she said, referring to the Quinn family after Quinn's son Sean and his nephew Peter Quinn were also found guilty of contempt.
The judge will decide on sentencing after hearing arguments from both sides on Friday about what action should be taken but said it would be difficult to persuade her that there should not be a custodial element in the penalty.
If he is jailed, Quinn, 65, would become the first major player in Ireland's economic collapse to be imprisoned.
The ruling comes three months after a judicial inquiry found corruption was "endemic and systemic" at every level of government in Ireland in the late 1990s and as a long-running fraud investigation continues at scandal-hit Anglo.
"I'M NOT DISHONEST"
Quinn has come to personify the boom and bust of Ireland's "Celtic Tiger" economy, turning a rural quarrying operation on his family farm into a global business empire only to become the subject of the largest ever Irish bankruptcy order four years after becoming the country's richest man.
His use of loans to make the ill-fated investments in the former Anglo Irish Bank has resulted in the failed lender pursuing him in a global treasure hunt from courtrooms in Dublin to the British Virgin Islands.
Lawyers for the bank, which is being slowly wound down after its years of reckless lending left the state with a 30 billion euro bill, said taxpayers faced "a very substantial loss" if it fails to secure assets from Quinn as far afield as Russia, Ukraine and Belize.
The bank said on Tuesday that the verdict showed that the contempt motion was a valid and necessary step.
"The proven planned, covert and illicit actions taken by the Quinns and connected parties have resulted in millions of euros being lost or put at risk. IBRC will continue to seek to remedy this," IBRC chief executive Mike Aynsley said in a statement.
Quinn, who choked back tears when giving evidence last month, admitted signing documents transferring Russian and Ukrainian assets to a new entity to put them out of reach of the bank, but said he did this before last July's court order.
However Justice Dunne said on Tuesday that Quinn was "evasive and uncooperative" when giving evidence and instead of answering questions put to him, simply embarked on lengthy criticisms of Anglo.
Asked by reporters for his reaction to the decision as he got into the back of an SUV, Quinn replied "interesting". When it was put to him that the judge found him to be dishonest, he said: "I'm not dishonest".
(Writing by Padraic Halpin; Editing by Louise Ireland)