A Maidstone businessman has avoided jail despite his role in smuggling 17 tonnes of tobacco into Melbourne.

County Court judge Liz Gaynor sentenced Daniel Keefer, 65, to 18 months imprisonment, suspended on a two-year good behaviour bond after he pleaded guilty to one charge of importing tobacco with intent to defraud the Commonwealth of $8.4 million in taxes.

The court heard Keefer was in financial difficulties with his Maidstone business Flooring & Bathroom Bonanza.

“As a result of this … you discussed the matter with another person … that person being unbeknownst to you, a member of the Haddara family, a family which, although not all its members can be said to be criminal, is well known to this court,” Judge Gaynor said.

“As a result of that discussion he said he could assist you by referring you to his nephew, a man known a Khaled Hussain whose real name is Mohammed Haddara.”

Keefer was offered money to use his premises and business to stash a container of goods concealing tobacco.

A container said to contain 600 toilets, which arrived in Australia in August 2013, was found to have 17 tonnes of tobacco leaf hidden inside. Customs detected the tobacco, and the delivery continued under police surveillance.

A delay in delivery raised Keefer’s suspicions and he tried to disassociate himself from the container in emails to shipping authorities.

The court heard the container was delivered and Keefer made a forklift and employee available for the removal of the tobacco.

“I have no doubt that the decision that you made was one which was entirely out of character for you and was brought about by the unusually difficult financial circumstances you found yourself in,” Judge Gaynor told Keefer.

“You have been extraordinarily foolish and it has clearly cost you dearly.”