Council employee doubled salary with bogus overtime claims
A WARWICKSHIRE County Council employee doubled her salary for more than two years by submitting bogus overtime claim forms – even going in when she was off sick to fill them out, writes our court correspondent.
But despite stealing almost £50,000 from the council, dishonest Samantha Owen escaped an immediate jail term after she pleaded guilty at Warwick Crown Court to a charge of fraud.
The 43-year-old, of Guys Cliffe Terrace, Warwick, was given a two-year sentence suspended for two years, with a rehabilitation activity, and was ordered to do 200 hours of unpaid work.
She had entered her plea on the basis that she had stolen around £30,000, but on the day of a ‘trial of issue’ on that aspect, she accepted the true figure was actually £49,199.
Owen had been a sessional worker with the council’s social services department since 2004, and became the sessional workers’ co-ordinator in 2010.
Judge Andrew Lockhart QC said: "Warwickshire County Council has a definitive budget. It is one paid for by society, by council tax payers.
“That budget has as a hugely important part of it the care of children and the vulnerable, and working with those vulnerable people are social workers and sessional workers.
“The budget was constantly under pressure, and there would be a small amount shaved off budgets every year, making it more difficult for services to be delivered.
“Against that backdrop, what did you do? For your own reasons you became depressed, and I accept there may have been a difficult work environment, but there are ways round that.
“It is not a proper way round it to start to overspend and to pay yourself double your wage, that money being taken directly from a budget which could and should be applied to social workers to carry out visits to protect the vulnerable.
“One of the most serious aspects is that you were signing the forms off in the names of other people who would then have to be interviewed about those matters.
“It was an abuse of a position of trust, a sophisticated nature and over a prolonged period. £40,000 is not a high percentage in the vast budget of the county council, but that is £40,000 taken from the care of children.”
Prosecutor Oliver Weetch said that in July last year a new payment system was about to be put into place, and an audit was carried out which revealed a number of discrepancies.
A number of members of staff were spoken to, and overtime claim forms Owen had submitted dating back to March 2015 were checked after one was found to have a fraudulent signature on it.
In addition to legitimate overtime claims, she had been submitted regular false claims between March 2015 and July last year for a total of £49,199.
Mr Weetch said: “It was only by virtue of the new system that it was discovered, otherwise it would have continued. The investigation led to her being interviewed, and she made admissions then and during the course of her interview with the police.
“She accepted that money was tight in relation to the county council, given the cuts to services across the board.”
Mr Weetch said Owen had often worked at weekends, turning down offers by other people to do some of the work, to enable her to keep her frauds hidden, even going in when she was officially off sick to submit false claims.
Makhan Shoker, defending, said there was never any doubt so far as Owen was concerned that she was guilty, and the only issue had been the extend of the fraud because she could not remember when she had started submitting false claims.
At first she had been presented with claims going back to January 2016, on which her £30,000 basis of plea had been based, and then the defence were shown ones going back to March 2015.
Mr Shoker said that long before the frauds started, Owen had been working long hours of overtime.
“She was the sessional workers’ co-ordinator and had to co-ordinate their time sheets and authorise payments, and that’s why she went in at a weekend when she was off sick,” he claimed.
Mr Shoker said Owen was suffering from depression and having problems at work, and ‘she was doing things to alleviate her troubles which she should have realised would only get her into more trouble,’ spending the money on shopping.
He added that as a result of that Owen, who has not told her husband precisely why she had got the sack, has lost her good character and any prospect of obtaining a decent job.
Reserving any breaches of the suspended sentence to himself, Judge Lockhart told Owen: “You should understand how close you have come to going to custody."