COMPANY directors convicted of defrauding the taxpayer of £134,000 say they were naive, inexperienced and gained nothing from their fraud.

Ian Johnston and partner Tracey Holliday – who ran the Darlington organisation Deaf Development – claimed the cash from the government’s Access to Work scheme over a period of three years.

The money was given to enable the pair to pay for support workers for disabled staff and interpreters for Ms Holliday, who is deaf.

However, the Department of Work and Pensions said the support workers claimed for by the couple were “fictitious”, that Ms Holliday did not need a specialist interpreter and that the cash was used to prop up the failing business and to pay for their children’s private school fees.

The pair, from Darlington, were arrested in 2013 and pleaded guilty to fraud at Teesside Crown Court this summer. Witnesses claimed Holliday had not had any support over the three years for which the claims had been made – despite Holliday pocketing thousands of pounds.

The court also heard evidence that Holliday, 39, was hard of hearing, but had no problem in communicating with people.

The pair also admitted sending the government inaccurate invoices for support work that had not been done.

Fraudulent interpreting and note-taking invoices were submitted to support fake Access to Work applications in which claims were made for interpreters who apparently never existed.

The joint fraud, in which Johnston pocketed £106,267 and Holliday a further £27,797, spanned more than three years.

Mark Harper, the Minister of State for disabled people, said the case was “a sickening example of two people milking a system designed especially to support disabled people to get or keep a job.”

Last night, Johnston said the case had driven him to attempt suicide and attributed the fraud to naivety and inexperience, saying they pleaded guilty as family commitments meant they needed to avoid a lengthy trial.

Claiming the couple only took over the company in 2012, the 43-year-old said: “We were convicted of fraud and dishonesty, but it was unintentional – we didn’t realise what we were doing was wrong.

“Any defrauding of the taxpayer was unintentional – we benefited a lot of people with our company, but we later found we’d been running it wrongly.

“We put invoices in for work done three times a week, but we didn’t change the invoices to reflect the days.

“They said work wasn’t done – it was, just not on the days the invoices said.

“We accept things we did were wrong, but it was pure naivety on our part – we’d never run a business before.

“We didn’t use the money for any personal gain, we put it back into the business and the community.”

Johnston was sentenced to 12 months’ imprisonment, suspended for two years, and given a two- year supervision order.

Tracey Holliday was sentenced to four months’ imprisonment, suspended for two years.