An initial theft of £32,968.50 came to light in June 2020 when the practice manager at the Charter Medical Centre, in Hove, spotted a string of unexplained payments to accountant Kim Ashurst.
A prosecutor told Brighton Magistrates Court this week that after being called in for a meeting, Ms Ashurst immediately confessed to being behind the overpayments – and blamed her actions on a gambling habit. The overpayments had been made between March and June 2020.
Checks at surgeries where the accountant had worked previously uncovered a further theft of £35,093 from two practices within the Foundry Healthcare group in Lewes. A series of false claims for equipment purchases had been used to cover up the theft, an investigation by the group’s practice manager revealed.
GP practice theft
Ms Ashurst paid back money she took from Charter Medical Centre with a loan from her parents, while Foundry Healthcare claimed on its insurance – but has been left facing an £800-a-month hike in its insurance premiums.
The court heard the practice also had to pay £3,000 to accountants to correct its financial records and another £5,000 in fines to HMRC.
The thefts are the latest in a wave of cases that have exposed practices’ vulnerability to fraud in recent years. GPonline reported in 2019 on two separate cases within a single month in which practice managers were jailed for defrauding practices out of six-figure sums.
Defending Ms Ashurst, attorney Catherine Diffey said the accountant’s gambling problem – and the thefts – had started before the pandemic, but had spiralled out of control during lockdown.
She told the court: ‘She developed a gambling addiction late in 2019, online blackjack and slots. It literally spiralled out of control and was made worse during the first lockdown period of last year.
‘She started maxing out her credit cards and took out loans, chasing her losses and that’s what led to her committing these offences.
‘Gambling addiction is becoming a more serious problem in society. As a result of these offences she won’t be able to work in the field of finance again.’
Sentencing, magistrate Eve Vamvas said: ‘These are very serious matters because of the breach of trust and the amounts of money that you stole.’
Taking into account her expression of remorse and attempts to repay money she had stolen, Ms Ashurst was sentenced to to 21 weeks in custody for each of the two charges of theft, both suspended for 24 months.
As part of the suspended sentence Ms Ashurst is also required to carry out up to 30 rehabilitation days, and 180 hours of unpaid work.