South Shields charity boss gives evidence in his £700,000 fraud trial

John Briers.
John Briers.

A charity boss accused of a £700,000 fraud has denied he was involved in any deception.

Chief executive John Briers is on trial facing allegations he paid 60 of the organisation's cheques into his own bank account, awarded himself 11 unauthorised bonuses and 19 additional pension contributions, which he denies.

The 57-year-old has pleaded not guilty to three offences of fraud between January 2007 and August 2015, when he was chief executive officer at Age Concern South Tyneside, based at Beach Road, South Shields, and is being tried by a jury at Newcastle Crown Court.

Briers has told jurors, from the witness box, that 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 is accused of creating fake invoices to try and cover his deception, said the documents were simply "placeholders" to assist with accounting when the originals were lost and were never intended to look real.

Briers said 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.

The married dad, who has three grown-up children, told the court he was taken on by the charity in March 1997 and Thursday would have been his 21st anniversary as chief executive officer.

He said at the time he was taken on, initially as development manager, he was on a salary of around £25k, which rose to around £30k when he was promoted to CEO within weeks.

Briers said at the the time the charity was in a "quite difficult" financial situation and he was advised any bonus payments would be back dated when it improved.

Briers said the firm had a yearly income of around £50-60,000 when he first started, which rose to around £750,000 by 2007, by which time he was earning around £65,000 salary.

He told jurors how over the years he received earnings on top of his salary for different projects with other organisations and for taking on the role as an "approved person" for his charity with the Financial Services Authority.

Briers said one of the research projects he was paid separately for, which went through the Age Concern accounts as one of their contracts, was a large study by academics from Newcastle and other universities into use of alcohol in later life.

He said his part in the study, which gained nationwide acknowledgement, involved him meeting with participants and professionals and dealing with publicity, all in his own personal time.

Briers told the court: "I was being remunerated by cheque for that work."

The executive said the "fake" invoices found in the accounts were actually placeholders for the accounts system as original invoices were lost "on a regular basis".

He added: "It wasn't meant to look like a professional invoice."

Briers said he would pay for services in cash if the company he was dealing with requested and described such a scenario with a firm of architects he dealt with.

He said: "They had no IT systems, they were a very well and good firm of architects but everything was done on paper, we couldn't get digital designs or anything like that from them.

"Cash was held in the office after a number of withdrawals from my account."

Briers said the money used for such cash transactions was kept "in the safe" and added: "It wasn't something that was hidden."

Prosecutors claim 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.

Briers, of Woodstock Road, Gateshead, denies all charges.

The trial continues.