The managing director of a Steeple Bumpstead firm has described the feeling of shock and betrayal felt by him and his staff after one of their team stole almost £88,000.
Darren Papani, the MD of Edmolift UK Ltd and Lyfthaus UK Ltd, in Blois Meadow, said everyone was ‘stunned and saddened’ and that the ‘trust has gone’ when they discovered that Sue Strong, the firm’s bookkeeper/financial manager of 15 years, had filtered away £87,927 into her bank account.
Strong, 50, of Quendon Place, Haverhill, pleaded guilty to two charges of committing fraud by abusing her position and last Thursday was sentenced at Chelmsford Crown Court by Judge Patricia Lynch QC to a two-year prison term, suspended for two years, and ordered to carry out 160 hours of unpaid work.
Strong only escaped immediate incarceration because, said Judge Lynch, she was of previous good character and because she was able to repay ‘every penny’ by selling off her mortgage-free home.
For Mr Papani and his 17 employees, the impact of Strong’s actions have run deep.
He said: “We are a small, family run company. Sue was a friend to everybody here and everybody liked Sue.
“The way it’s affected the guys here is shocking. They feel the trust has gone. It’s someone you went to work with every day and it’s someone who has done something like this.
“The three largest sums were all taken on the day of our annual Christmas parties.
“We employ all local people and we do that on purpose because it’s made for a great working environment and when this sort of thing happens it’s a real stab in the back.”
The court heard Strong had full access to the firm’s accounting system and that she had faked invoices with payments into her own bank account.
The court heard that mother-of-two Strong, who leaned heavily on a walking stick as she made her way to the dock, suffers from multiple sclerosis, diabetes, a thyroid condition and depression, and is the carer for her husband.
As she passed sentence the judge told her: “Over and above a huge amount of money you stole from a small family run business, both your employers and your colleagues have a sense of total betrayal by you and quite rightly so.
“For someone who was continuously and repeatedly defrauding the company, stealing vast amounts of money for two to three years, of course they feel betrayed, distressed and upset and you should be thoroughly, thoroughly ashamed of yourself.”
Prosecutor Michael Crimp said that Strong went off on extended sick leave in February last year after concern about her performance.
She resigned in September after statutory sick pay ran out following the accounting discoveries. When arrested Strong said: “I hold my hands up. I cannot recall it being £87,000.”
In mitigation, Meredoc McMinn said that Strong suffered a number of close personal bereavements in 2013, 2014 and 2015 and her husband underwent surgery and could no longer work in 2014. The offences related to those times, he said.
He added that Strong was remorseful and would find it difficult to continue with her bookkeeping career, which she had done since the age of 17.
He continued: “While they were fraud offences and involved a cover up, they were not particularly sophisticated, not that difficult to find out.”
Mr Papani, whose firm has been operating since 1991 and makes access lifts for the disabled, added: “I can’t say it’s not effected the business because this is money we would normally invest in the business. Now, of course, if the money comes back to us it can be reinvested into the business.
“We obviously had to keep things quiet because the police were building a case. When we heard the police were going in and doing their dawn raid we could let the staff know.
“We let everybody into the conference room and told them the truth and there was absolute silence. Everybody was so stunned at what she had done.
“We are a big family. Everyone looks out for each other and we work incredibly well together and Sue was an integral part of that and now this happens and its an incredibly sad thing.”
Mr Papani added that after Strong was signed off on sick leave she took a number of holidays abroad, including to Mexico and the Caribbean.
At the time he said he thought ‘good luck to Sue’ but now realises that the trips ‘were at my expense’.
A court-imposed restraint order is already in place on Strong’s home, which does not have a mortgage. It is due to be sold.
The judge agreed that a formal confiscation of assets process should follow.