Council clerk stole £160,000 by forging cheques with erasable pen

Council clerk stole £160,000 by forging cheques with erasable pen

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 bell cheque fraud

Image from the Daily Mail

Patricia Bell, a parish clerk from Hampshire, was in charge of invoicing and payroll at the council, and had been so since 2006. She was paid £46,000 a year.

The Daily Mail reported the story on 5 November 2013.

Facts

In 2012, the council realised that it was running a deficit on several of its accounts. They looked a little closer and uncovered what was, in fairness, quite a clever little scheme.

Bell would get cheques signed by councillors who trusted her after her lengthy employment in her finance position. The genuine payee’s name would be filled in – with erasable ink. Later, Bell would heat up the erasable ink, wipe it away, and fill in her own name. She did so from April 2007 until December 2012 when she was suspended.

She obtained £110,000 from the forged cheques and stole a further £45,000 ‘partly through bogus salary payments’. The total obtained was £162,000 (we couldn’t work out the maths either).

She used the money to buy handbags, holidays and beauty treatments.

 Offences

She was arrested and charged with fraud by abuse of position. She pleaded to one count under Fraud Act 2006 s 4. The maximum sentence is 10 years.

Sentence

She was imprisoned for 28 months. On a guilty plea with full credit, that represents a starting point of 42 months (3.5 years).

Among the aggravation is obviously the breach of trust, the sophisticated manner in which the fraud was conducted, the amount obtained, what the money was used for and the period over which the fraud was conducted.

The mitigation includes the plea and the fact that it was not fraudulent from the outset.

Looking at the theft in breach of trust guideline (which is most appropriate for these offences), the starting point for theft of £125,000 or more (or £20,000 in high breach of trust) is 3 years, with a range of 2-6 years.

The Judge is likely to have raised the sentence above the suggested starting point. This is because she felt Bell was in a high breach of trust (being solely responsible for the finances) and/or because Bell obtained a significant amount above the figure on which the starting point is based.

Taking into account the little mitigation, a sentence of 3.5 years after a trial seems to be right. With discount for the plea, 28 months is the result, and I don’t think I would argue with that. In my view, the Judge might have been entitled to raise the starting point above 4 years based on the degree of trust that Bell breached, however, without further information, it is difficult to assess that point.

So, 28 months for stealing quite a lot of money with some old-style espionage tricks. Clever, but not clever enough.

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Lyndon is the General Editor of Current Sentencing Practice and the Criminal Appeal Reports (Sentencing)

1 COMMENT

  1. She used some of her money to buy handbags if only she’d know about Jayne Rand (remember her Criminal Law Blog October 2013) perhaps she could have kept the costs down. Why were these cheques written in erasable ink seems a strange thing to do especially in this high tech agelow tech ‘solutions’ to a handbag crises appear to work equally, if not better, as well.

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