A LOOPHOLE in a NHS Trust’s lease car programme was exploited by a trusted finance officer for ten years – costing more than £84,000.

Darlington and County Durham NHS Trust actively encourages staff to sign up for a lease car to control travel costs of staff who work in the community and across its various sites.

John Thurlbeck was the man in charge of managing the trust’s lease car contracts and managed to manipulate the system to his own advantage despite not actually qualifying for a car.

To begin with, Thurlbeck abused his privileged position to access free fuel but by the time his scam had been uncovered he had assigned himself two vehicles – one for his own personal use and another for a family member.

His decade-long fraud was uncovered when internal auditors noticed discrepancies in the books and an investigation was launched using the specialist skills of Audit One.

David Brown, the Trust’s executive director of Finance, said: “In all honesty we haven’t needed to put an awful lot of steps in place,” he said. “This was a deliberate abuse of position by an individual. The control mechanisms that we have in place, we already have segregation of duties, we have appropriate levels of authorisation in terms of how people can commit to expenditure within the organisation and we know how expenditure is controlled and monitored.

“This case was quite specific, in that the individual in question, identified a loophole that he could abuse his power and position.”

The trust used three-year lease agreements for the vehicles, some used a pool cars and others contracted to a particular staff member.

One of the ways Thurlbeck was able to abuse the system was to take advantage of a car that had been returned after a member of staff had left or no longer required it.

Mr Brown said: “John in his role would look to see how a car could be reassigned and he would look managers to commit to the lease and that was were he was clever and initiated the fraud because he would reassign the car to himself – so on paper it would look like it was still in the area of the trust, where they continued to pay the money but he was driving the car.”

And it was the simplicity of the scam that meant Thurlbeck was able to get away with it for a decade racking up £84,000 worth of losses to the trust.

One of the minor changes made to the trust’s lease car procedures was removing the capacity to sign off the agreements with just the single signature.

Terry Smith, head of counter fraud at Audit One, carried out the independent investigation into Thurlbeck on behalf of the trust.

A forensic search through the trust’s lease car records was launched within 24 hours of the discrepancies being spotted.

Mr Smith said: “We went back and reviewed any vehicle that we could link to him and the earliest we got that back to was September 2007 – that’s where the ten years came from. We didn’t set up a ten-year parameter, we went back to the earliest where we could identify.

“We never limit ourselves with parameters, we look back as far as we can and use that as the starting point, which is exactly what we did with this investigation.

“We worked with the trust to review their systems and there was no glaring gap that he exploited. He was in a position where he was able to abuse his position to commit this fraud. There is no overhaul of the system required, the systems were good, he just exploited a part of that system in order to commit the fraud.”