FRAUDSTERS who managed a North-East shopping centre have avoided jail because of the length of time it has taken for them to be prosecuted.
Newcastle Crown Court heard Juliet Amanda Coard and Michael Lawson, who ran the Galleries centre in Washington, set up their own company in order to secure a lucrative maintenance contract and raked in more than £200,000.
The pair were each sentenced to two years in prison yesterday, but Judge Debbie Sherwin suspended their sentences for two years.
Coard, 49, and Lawson, 37, set up Turfcraft, and it was only when the standard began to slip that the company was investigated.
It emerged the supposed directors of the company were siblings of Coard and Lawson but they were unaware of their involvement.
The defendants were in fact running it themselves, having tricked their family members into becoming involved, and a police inquiry was launched.
Both Coard, of Front Street, Ireshopeburn, County Durham, and Lawson, of West Street, Grange Villa, were removed from their positions in 2011, but criminal proceedings did not begin as the officer in charge did not feel they were necessary, the court was told.
Both made admissions to the police about their involvement in the scam at that stage but it was only in July last year that another investigating officer took over and the case became more serious.
Bridie Smurthwaite, prosecuting, said: “Both admit that this fraud allowed them to finance their lifestyles.”
The court heard how Coard had used the company’s account to pay for a trip to Barcelona for eight people, and cash withdrawals of up to £117,000 were made between 2009 and 2010.
Both pleaded guilty to fraud by abuse of position.
Jane Foley, defending Coard, said that matters had “spiralled out of control”, as she had been supporting her husband after an accident, as well as other family members.
She added: “She did not stop to think about the criminal implications of what she was doing.
“She was in a rather bad and dark place at the time.”
Timothy Gittings defending Lawson, said: “Prior to this offending he was working hugely long hours, he was working very hard indeed when in 2007 he was appointed operations manager for The Galleries shopping centre.
“He was married with six children, and continued to work long hours, and was nonetheless finding life financially difficult.
“It has had a devastating effect on his family over the course of four years.
“His family home has been repossessed, he was in debt separately from loans and credit cards, his mother’s home was repossessed, and the strain of not knowing what was going to happen has meant that he and his wife have separated.”
Judge Sherwin said that both Coard and Lawson had suffered greatly as a result of their actions, and ordered them both to undertake unpaid work.
As well as the suspended sentences, Coard was given 100 hours’ unpaid work and Lawson 240 hours.