Age Concern boss John Briers jailed for seven years over £700k fraud

John Briers
John Briers

A greedy chief executive has been jailed for seven years after leaving an Age Concern charity surviving "hand to mouth" so he could line his own pockets with over £700,000 of its cash.

John Briers, who earned almost £6,000 per month, would divert up to 20 percent of the South Shields based charity's yearly income into his own bank so he and his family could live in "extravagance".

Newcastle Crown Court heard the huge scale of his dishonesty has caused six redundancies at the organisation, which helps around 20 per cent of South Tyneside's elderly and needy and, despite it being renamed and rebranded, has been left struggling.

Former financial manager Graham Cassidy, who has since taken over as chief executive, told the court that on top of the £700,000 stolen by Briers, the charity has lost another £590,000 as a result of the fraud.

Mr Cassidy said the organisation has had to find £200,000 in legal fees, lost £250,000 in income and had to fork out £78,000 in audit fees.

He said the charity has remortgaged their building to "keep us going" and owe a £94,000 payment to the local authority, which stemmed from Briers' fraud.

Mr Cassidy told the court: "The local authority are expecting payment imminently, which creates a hand to mouth living scenario for the charity."

The court heard six people have been made redundant from the organisation, four staff have had to reduce hours and management have had to take on increasing workloads in order for it to survive after the fraud.

Mr Cassidy said the negative publicity associated with Briers' behaviour has led to a huge slump in donations and put off some volunteers from future involvement.

Judge Tim Gittins banned Briers from being a company director for the next ten years and said his fraud against the charity involved a "truly staggering" amount of money.

The judge told him: "The only conclusion I am driven to is it was pure selfish greed on your part to cushion with extravagance your life and that of your family. "

Judge Gittins had read references from long term friends and associates of Briers who described his connections to the Catholic church and related charitable work over many years.

But the judge told Briers: "It was wholly unchristian behaviour you stealing from the vulnerable to give to yourself."

Judge Gittins said Briers had been "arrogant" in his attempts to cover his tracks and divert blame to others while giving evidence during the trial and added: "It would be laughable if it wasn't so serious".

The judge said the victims in the case were not limited to beneficiaries and their families and told Briers people who donated expected their money to be funding charitable work "rather than lining your pockets".

Christopher Rose, defending, said Briers has health problems and continues to deny the offences.

The court heard Briers had paid 60 of the charity's cheques into his own bank account, awarded himself 11 unauthorised bonuses and 19 additional pension contributions when he was Chief Executive Officer at the South Tyneside based branch on Beach Road, South Shields.

The 57-year-old denied three offences of fraud between January 2007 and August 2015 but was found guilty after a trial.

The court heard Briers, a married dad, who worked at the charity for 21 years, was suspended from his post when the then financial manager Mr Cassidy noticed a supporting document submitted by Briers looked fake.

Mr Cassidy told jurors during the trial: "The reason it caused me concern, the reason it came so quickly to mind, was the fact the VAT was wrong."

Mr Cassidy said the appearance of the document itself also raised suspicion.

He said: "It didn't feel like a good quality invoice, it didn't feel like a real invoice.

"It looked like something that had been photocopied."

Mr Cassidy said he spoke out about his worries when he was dealing with the invoice in August 2015, which resulted in an investigation.

The court heard a full staff meeting was called at the organisation and all employees were warned to have no contact with Briers, who was on holiday at the time.

Mr Cassidy added: "Mr Briers was being suspended pending investigation."

The court heard investigators found templates of blank invoices for firms the organisation had dealt with when Briers' office was searched.

Prosecutor Anthony Dunne told the court: "The position he held was that he was chief executive of a charity, Age Concern South Tyne.

"The case against him is he dishonestly used that position to fraudulently pay to himself large amounts of Age Concern's money.

"He made most of those payments simply by writing out cheques to himself.

"He then covered his tracks by pretending that those fraudulent payments were either payments to companies who had supplied good and services to Age Concern
or bonus payments that were approved by the charity's board of trustees or special payments, also agreed by the board, or a sub-committee of the board.

"The defendant created false documents to explain those fraudulent payments.

"In the end, he was caught out because one of the documents he created contained obvious mistakes and the finance manager with the charity noticed.

"In total, he stole over £700,000 from the charity through these means."

The court heard the money was taken from the two limbs of the organisation, one being the charity, which he was Chief Executive of, and the other was the trading company, which he was Secretary of.

Briers pocketed £433,236 through fraudulent cheques which he claimed were for suppliers, that he paid himself £104,560 in bonuses, including a special, duplicate monthly salary of £5,756, on one occasion, and that he used £169,703 of the charity's cash to top-up his pension.

Mr Dunne said Briers used fake invoices and even fraudulent minutes of board meetings in a bid to cover his tracks.

Briers, of Woodstock Road, Gateshead, made no comment during police interview.

Briers told jurors, from the witness box during the trial, he was entitled to the payments and bonuses that went into his bank and that he also used the account to pay cash for services used by the charity.

The executive, who created fake invoices to try and cover his deception, claimed the bogus documents were simply "placeholders" to assist with accounting when the originals were lost and were never intended to look real.

Briers had claimed large sums of money would go through his account and be kept in the safe at his office to pay for services used by the charity and were never hidden from colleagues.

After the case, Sharon Elves of the Crown Prosecution Service, said: "At the time of these offences, John Briers occupied a position of significant trust at Age Concern. He abused that trust for his own financial gain by making numerous payments to himself under false pretences.

"During police interview Briers declined to provide an explanation for these payments but the CPS has built a robust case to show that they could not have been for legitimate reasons.

"I hope that the conviction of John Briers today is welcomed by those affected by his selfish actions."