The former finance manager of a once flourishing Devon business has been jailed for swindling almost £1million from its accounts.
Clare Roberts, 50, abused her position at Moore and Moore Design Ltd, a luxury home accessories business in Witheridge, by siphoning about £100,000 a year into her own accounts.
When the business started to struggle she convinced the owners to take out loans from family, friends and the bank to keep it afloat. But she continued to steal much of the money as soon as it appeared, spending it all on herself, her family, holidays and everyday living.
The business, trading as Helen Moore, was a vital part of the local community and once employed 50 people. But it was brought to its knees and employees laid off without pay while Roberts, who often boasted about her high IQ, continued to pocket vast sums of cash.
Exeter Crown Court was told the extent of the dishonesty was staggering.
Helen Moore, the owner of the company, said Roberts had managed to dupe her for many years.
“She spent eight years ripping our business apart brick by brick,” she said. “Our lives will never be the same again.”
Roberts admitted two counts of fraud by abuse of position and was jailed for four years.
Prosecutor Mr Lee Bremridge said the offences covered a period between December 2010 and July 2019 when Roberts was employed first as a part-time bookkeeper at Moore and Moore Ltd and then permanently as a finance director.
He said the company had been in existence for nearly 40 years selling luxury items for the home when Roberts was given a job on the basis of her strong CV and general appearance of an effective and trustworthy member of the community.
In 2011 the business was thriving and growing in terms of sales ‘but in the years that followed things began to change,” said the prosecutor.
Roberts advised Mrs Moore to borrow cash until sales increased.
“On that advice Helen Moore did so from family, friends and the bank,” said Mr Bremridge. The court was told individuals paid sums in the region of £6,000 to the company to help it survive and pay staff. Some of the money went direct to Roberts and some she directed into family accounts she had access to.
During crisis meetings to discuss the declining financial fortunes of the company, Roberts reassured the owner it would recover and was working hard herself to make sure it happened and everybody would be paid back.
“I trusted her and she was totally convincing,” said Mrs Moore.
Roberts encouraged the owner to take out more loans. It was not until 2018 that the bank stepped in and said a finance director should work with Roberts to get the company back on track.
He expressed concerns about the competency of Roberts but at that stage there was no reason to doubt her integrity.
It was only when one of Helen Moore’s friends agreed to invest on condition he examined the books first that her fraud began to unravel. He told Helen Moore the accounts were in a mess. The owner went through them herself and found excessively large loan repayments being made to Roberts.
When confronted, Roberts said the money was for extra hours she had worked but could produce no written record.
“Helen Moore confronted her about astonishing amounts of money at a time when 17 other members of staff had been laid off for several weeks without pay,” said Mr Bremridge.
Roberts said she had been unwell with depression and serious money problems and had worked more hours than she had claimed.
“The reality is that that Clare Roberts had been swindling the company out of hundreds and thousands of pounds over the course of many years,” said the prosecutor.
The full extent of the fraud began to be revealed. Mrs Moore discovered bank statements, which should have been filed, were missing, money belonging to the company was going into Roberts’ accounts.
Over the course of eight years, starting in 2001, Roberts had overpaid herself ‘extraordinary amounts of money’ said Mr Bremridge. The first payments had been made in the first few months of her job and she had covered it up for years.
The company has losses just short of £1million, said the prosecutor. The total sum agreed between prosecution and defence was £877,000.
Roberts told police she faced money problems as the family’s only breadwinner. A financial investigation discovered she had spent the cash on general living and nothing would be recovered.
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Helen Moore, 75, read a victim impact statement to the court in which she said Roberts would take frequent holidays, telling her she paid for it with her husband’s pay out.
“I’ve had my life and business ripped apart by the actions of Clare Roberts,” she said.
She said Roberts was a ‘cruel manipulator’ who had effectively stolen from her family, the business, the local community and betrayed her trust. She said the business had an ethos of paying a living wage and putting all its profits back into the company.
“She literally stole the money as I borrowed it,” said Mrs Moore. She had now been left with responsibility to pay back loans and pension payments which Roberts took for herself.
“Claire Roberts not just brought a much-loved company to its knees, she’s had a devastating effect on the entire community,” she added. She hoped to rebuild the business and repay what money she could but described it as a ‘daunting task’.
“The burden of the company will sit on my shoulders for the rest of my life. Our lives will never be the same again.”
Mr Peter Lownds, defending, said Roberts had led a law abiding life for 40 years and the offences had been triggered by her own financial difficulties. She accepted she had been dishonest and was very sorry.
Judge David Evans said: “What you did was use your position of trust and the access you had to the company’s financial systems to systematically remove money from the company bank accounts and transfer it into your own or bank accounts to which you access.
“Your dishonesty is startling in it’s depth and persistence.”
He said Roberts’ actions became a habit but she chose to ‘actively steal each and every time’ she took money from the company.
“You took on average £100,000 a year for year after year from your employer. It obviously wasn’t yours and you took it from people who trusted you.
“This is not a case which can be explained by a state of financial desperation. Things might have been tight at the beginning and remained tight throughout but your financial situation over the period of time was by no means exceptional compared to the situations many families find themselves in. It does not begin to explain where the best part of £1million went in eight years.
He said Roberts put up a convincing act to people that she was someone to be be trusted.
“The fact is you lived a much better life over these eight years than you could have done legitimately. You lived off other people’s money even when hard working employees had to be laid off.”