On 14th March 2013 two Crown Prosecution Service employees, Lisa Burrows (41) and Tahir Mahmood (50) pleaded guilty to Conspiracy to commit fraud under Criminal Law Act 1977 s 1. (See the CPS press release for details)
Burrows was an Area Finance Manager for CPS West Midlands. She was authorised to submit any invoice up to the value to £25,000 without recourse to a senior manager. Mahmood was a CPS employee (that employment was facilitated by Burrows) and prior to that employment he was a taxi driver. The Judge commented that it was that experience which underpinned the fraud.
The two CPS employees set up false invoices to claim for non-existent taxi rides (with a non-existent taxi firm) to transport non-existent witnesses to Court. Mahmood set up a bank account using an alternative surname to facilitate the fraud. They managed to get in over £1 million over a five year period, amounting to about £4,000 per week.
The BBC stated that they used the funds to pay off their mortgage, buy designer goods and to pay for trips to Dubai and New York,
The pair pleaded in March, so why the delay? The authorities conducted financial inquiries to trace the money, for the purposes of recovering the proceeds of the offences. We are unaware of the outcome of the inquiries. This should not have resulted in a discounted sentence.
The sentencing remarks are available here.
Aside from the sheer amount involved, the features that make this conspiracy particularly serious are these: This was a huge fraud on the public purse causing substantial losses to a department already under serious financial pressure. It was carried out by someone in a position of very considerable trust. The fraud involved significant planning by both of you. It continued formore than five years. It would have carried on had it not been discovered as is apparent from the fact that you, Burrows, had further bogus invoices ready for submission. Very large sums of money remain outstanding. Where the proceeds can be traced,they wentlargely on high living. The fraud was motivated purely by greed. The fact that the fraud involved the Crown Prosecution Service and was committed by a senior member of that Service – the body responsible for bringing criminals to justice – will have affected and eroded public confidence in that Service.
Plainly the element of breach of trust applies mostsignificantly to you, Burrows. Whilst you, Mahmood, were an employee of the Crown Prosecution Service in the latter stages of the fraud, your employment was not an integral part of the fraudulent process. Equally, Burriows, you have lost everything as a result of the fraud and I cannot ignore the fact that you, Mahmood, held the purse strings. I do not intend to distinguish between you in the sentence I impose.
The Judge appears to suggest that the aggravation of the breach of trust (most applicable to Burrows) is cancelled out by the fact she has ‘lost everything’, thereby allowing the Judge to treat the defendants equally for the purposes of sentence. He continued:
It is difficult to envisage a more serious fraud of its type that the one you committed. Had you contested the case the sentence in your case in the region of nine years would have been appropriate.
Clearly the Judge took a dim view of the offending.
The Judge made no reference to the guidelines.
In March, we looked at what sentence they could expect. News reports had suggested the pair had pleaded to Fraud Act 2006 offence. We said:
“The Fraud Guidelines will apply. The most suitable category is ‘Banking and Insurance Fraud’ (page 24). It is professionally planned and over a long period of time, and, given the amount of money, it is in the top category.
The starting point (based on £750,000) is 5 years, with a range of 4-7 years. This is after a trial and both will get full credit for pleading guilty.”
This was incorrect. The pair pleaded to conspiracy to commit fraud. They each received 6 years, representing a sentence of 9 years after a trial (as the Judge gave them full credit for their pleas).
When sentencing for conspiracy offences, it is usually appropriate to sentence for the individual role in the conspiracy, as well as participation in the overall conspiracy. This often results in higher sentences than where merely a substantive offence is charged. (Eg. conspiracy to burgle / burglary).
Officially, the guidelines do not apply. The guidelines apply to the offences listed in Annex A. Section 1 states:
…if a person agrees with any other person or persons that a course of conduct shall be pursued which, if the agreement is carried out in accordance with their intentions, either—
(a)will necessarily amount to or involve the commission of any offence or offences by one or more of the parties to the agreement…
he is guilty of the conspiracy to commit the offence in question.
The guideline specifically excludes conspiracy to defraud (a different common law offence) but doesnt mention conspiracy to commit the substantive offence (which is covered by the guideline). A little complicated.
Whilst the guidelines do not officially apply, I am of the view that they can be of some assistance.
The starting point of 5 years (based on £750,000) can be raised to reflect the fact that over £1m was obtained. That could legitimately be increased to 6 years (or a bit more), but is unlikely that a starting point of over 7 years would usually be deemed to be appropriate in absence of some serious aggravating factors. There plainly should be an increase for the breach of trust and the role played by each and the fact that the funds were used to finance a lavish lifestyle. There can be no increase for the length of time over which the fraud was carried out, nor the professional planning or multiple frauds, as this is already factored in to the starting point.
It would be necessary to increase the sentence to reflect the involvement in the conspiracy and so that may have taken the sentence towards the 9 year starting point that the Judge adopted.
Perhaps. In light of the fact that this was a conspiracy, the sentence doesnt seem so high as originally thought.
To the substantive offence, 6 years on a plea seems high. And it is hard to see how a sentence of 9 years, against a maximum of 10 could be upheld on an appeal. For a conspiracy, it may be that the sentence is about right, after considering the guidelines, adding a bit on for the conspiracy, the increased sum obtained and the lavish lifestyle it was used to fund.
Watch this space.
Note: This post was amended on 30 August 2013 after learning that the offence was conspiracy to commit fraud.