Friday, March 7, 2014
A former parish clerk has been jailed for 12 months after stealing more than £50,000 of council money, including funds from its youth group, and gambling it away.
Mum-of-three Joanna Sharp, of Hill Close, Brington, appeared at Peterborough Crown Court for sentencing today (Thursday).
The 28-year-old, who started working for Alconbury Parish Council in October 2009, had pleaded guilty at an earlier hearing to committing fraud by abuse of position as parish clerk by taking money without authorisation and producing false financial documentation.
Prosecuting, Cheryl Williams said Sharp’s fraud came to light in May last year when Lloyds bank contacted parish council chairman Judith Aylott to query a cheque which appeared to have her signature on it. She was shown a further nine cheques which she had supposedly signed.
“Mrs Aylott realised immediately she had not signed the cheques and they must be fraudulent,” said Miss Williams.
When challenged by Mrs Aylott, Sharp admitted she had stolen £10,000 and asked that the matter not be reported to police because she fully intended to repay what had been taken, the court was told.
Miss Williams continued: “When examined, the paperwork appeared to show more money had been taken and financial documents had been tampered with to cover it up.”
Sharp was dismissed by the parish council which contacted police and instigated its own financial investigation.
It revealed that from July 2011 there had been 139 separate fraudulent transactions on an account, totalling £55,893.85. There were seven transactions on another account and Sharp had also made payments to her mother, Mrs Howard, to whom she owed money.
“It appears the defendant managed to manufacture apparent bank statements with the appearance of authenticity,” said Miss Williams, who described the fraud as “sophisticated, persistent, and carried out with a degree of skill and care” to deceive auditors and Mrs Aylott.
She added that the total defrauded was thought to be £65,322.43, but did not include monies repaid by Sharp or salary which she had not been taken.
The money was spent on gambling via online websites such as PokerStars and, while some was repaid, it was a fraction of the total taken.
A visit from bailiffs over mounting debts accrued by her husband had prompted the fraudulent behaviour, said Miss Williams, and matters had “spiralled out of control” when he was made redundant and then could not take up a new job after suffering a heart attack.
Commenting on the impact of Sharp’s actions on the parish council, Miss Williams added: “They gave up their own time for the good of the community so they feel all the more keenly the betrayal of trust which has taken place.
“Work that could have been done on behalf of the community will now be prejudiced because of lack of money.”
Defending Sharp, Miss Katya Saudek said she had taken the money in desperation with the intention of it being a “bridging loan”.
Her relationship with her husband, which has since ended, was described as “very difficult”. “She was subject to control,” said Miss Saudek. “She was not allowed out to see friends and family, he was extremely jealous of her and she ended up finding solace in the computer as the only social outlet she had.”
While her gambling was not an addiction, it was said to be “problematic”.
She could not explain to her husband that his redundancy money was needed to pay off the debts she had built up by stealing from the parish council, said Miss Saudek, and she had to go along with what he wanted to do.
“Miss Sharp is desperately sorry for what she has done and desperately ashamed for what she has done,” said Miss Saudek, who added that her greatest wish was to repay the money.
Sentencing Sharp to 12 months in prison, Recorder Miss Angela Rafferty told her: “Debt and personal financial insecurity is commonplace in these days of recession. That’s not a reason to turn to crime. Many people struggle on honestly and you made no attempt to.
“You have placed yourself in this avoidable position by your dishonest actions.”
Sharp was also ordered to pay a £100 victim surcharge.
Commenting on the case, Mrs Aylott said it had been “really tough” not being able to say anything to Alconbury residents.
With court proceedings having concluded, a newsletter is due to be sent to every household in the parish outlining the facts, she added.
“The hardest bit is to have abuse of trust,” she continued. “We are a small village and treated her as family.
“We took years to build up the reserves and she’s taken everything.”