A HEALTH trust accountant has been jailed for two years for defrauding the NHS out of more than £84,000 whilst living a "seemingly respectable life".

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.

Today, he was sentenced at Durham Crown Court following his earlier pleas of guilty to two counts of fraud by abuse of position.

The court heard how Thurlbeck’s deception was discovered by a junior colleague while he was on holiday in 2016 when an internal audit was carried out.

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

By the time Thurlbeck’s scam was uncovered, he had allocated himself two cars – one for his own use and another for his wife, who the court heard was unaware of his criminality.

Vince Ward, prosecuting, said the investigation determined that Thurlbeck had assigned himself a Skoda Octovia and his wife was driving around in a Ford Fiesta that the NHS was footing the bill for. In total the defendant had fraudulently secured access to 16 different cars over the ten-year period of his scam.

He said: "This was a sophisticated fraud that was carried out over a long period of time."

The court heard that Thurlbeck had released some of his NHS pension and downsized his home with the intention of repaying the money he defrauded.

John Turner, mitigating, said his client had accepted that he was going to receive a custodial sentence and had not instructed him to defend his actions.

He said: "At the time of his dismissal he was living in the family home but his wife invited him to leave – but allowed him to return after two months. Their two children were angry and upset and supported their mother's throughout – they still remain angry and upset."

The charges relate to periods between January 2011 and March 2017, in which Thurlbeck made a gain of more than £19,000 and between January 2007 and June 2017 when he made a gain of more than £64,000 – a total in excess of £84,000.

Thurlbeck, formerly of Newton Aycliffe, remained emotionless in the dock throughout the 30-minute hearing.

Sentencing Thurlbeck, Deputy Circuit Judge James Spencer QC said he had abused his position of trust over the ten-year period.

He said: "We were in a responsible position and you had to look after the resources of the NHS but you didn't do so, you enriched yourself instead.

"You abused your position by defrauding the lease car scheme for two cars – one for you and one your wife to use – all the while you were going about your seemingly respectable life."

A proceeds of crime act hearing will take place later this year to decide how much Thurlbeck will be ordered to pay back to the trust.