A HEALTH trust accountant yesterday admitted defrauding the NHS out of more than £84,000, The Northern Echo can reveal.

John Thurlbeck abused his position as a finance officer at County Durham and Darlington NHS Foundation Trust to assign himself fuel and cars over a ten-year period.

The 59-year-old, of Swan Walk, Spennymoor, was sacked by the trust for gross misconduct following an internal investigation into his manipulation of the trust's lease car programme.

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And yesterday, he appeared before Newton Aycliffe Magistrates' Court where he pleaded guilty to two counts of fraud by abuse of position.

The court heard how Thurlbeck's deception was discovered while he was on holiday in 2016 when an internal audit was carried out in his absence.

Initially, there was no suspicions of any wrongdoing but a further audit was carried out last year and a number of discrepancies were identified.

Speaking of the fall-out from the fraud, David Brown, the trust's executive director of finance, said Thurlbeck had exploited a loophole in the trust's lease car system for his own benefit while he was in charge of signing of the contracts.

By the time Thurlbeck's scam was uncovered he had allocated himself two cars – one for himself and another for a family member.

Mr Brown said: "Ultimately it is the patients who are the victims of this fraud, I would rather see that resource get directed to frontline patient care."

Terry Smith, head of counter fraud at Audit One, who carried out the investigation into Thurlbeck, confirmed that no-one else had been involved in the scam and work is already underway to recover the money.

He said: "As part of our investigation process we have access to accredited financial investigators and we have engaged with them over the last three months. They are now following their processes through the Proceeds of Crime Act, so on conviction a separate process will be started to recover this money."

Thurlbeck was also involved in the County Durham and Darlington NHS Foundation Trust Charity but Mr Brown said there was no evidence of any impropriety in the charity's accounts.

He said: "The charity is subject to the same internal and external audit, obviously following this incident, we did go back through 18 months worth of transactions but there was no evidence of any suspicious transactions at all."

Darlington MP Jenny Chapman last night said she was shocked that Thurlbeck was able to get away with it for ten years but welcomed the fact that procedures had already been tightened as a result of the investigation.

She said: "With resources being as stretched as they are in the NHS, any loss of resources is going to impact on services as a consequence of his fraud.

"It may not be a huge amount in the grand scheme of things for the NHS but this is not an insignificant sum of money, I suppose it is good that he chose to plead guilty and reduce the cost of a trial, but he should definitely pay back that money."

The charges relate to periods between January 2011 and March 2017, in which Thurlbeck made a gain of £19,262.58 and between January 2007 and June 2017 when he made a gain of £65,060.99 – a total of £84,323.57

Thurlbeck, formerly of Newton Aycliffe, is due to appear before Durham Crown Court on Friday, March 9 for sentence.