Ex-MP Devine guilty of expense scam

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The Independent Online

Former Labour MP Jim Devine was found guilty of fiddling his expenses today.

Devine, 57, who held the Livingston seat, submitted false invoices for cleaning and printing work totalling £8,385.

He was found guilty by a jury at Southwark Crown Court of two charges of false accounting. He was cleared of one other count relating £360 for cleaning work.

The former backbencher, of West Main Street, Bathgate, West Lothian, was the first MP to stand trial in the wake of the expenses scandal.

The jury of six men and six women took two hours and 45 minutes to agree with the prosecution that on the two counts Devine showed a "woeful inadequacy" in abiding by the core principles expected of MPs.

Peter Wright QC, prosecuting, said the case against Devine was "very straightforward".

The former MP made the fraudulent claims "with a view to gain for himself, or with an intent to cause loss to another - the public purse".

The prosecutor said a guide known as the Green Book was readily available to MPs and clearly set out the rules and regulations on submitting expenses that must relate to parliamentary duties.

It lists the fundamental principles MPs should adhere to when making expenses claims, Mr Wright told the court.

"These are based on concepts of selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty and leadership," he said.

"We say these are qualities of which Mr Devine demonstrated a woeful inadequacy."

Speaking of the Green Book, he added: "We say it's wholly unambiguous. It couldn't be clearer."

Devine was granted unconditional bail by Mr Justice Saunders, the trial judge, and he will be sentenced in due course.

The red-faced former MP walked with a slight limp out of the dock after he was dismissed by Mr Justice Saunders.

During the trial Devine claimed his former office manager Marion Kinley paid herself more than £5,000 from his staffing allowance without his knowledge.

Commenting after today's verdict, Ms Kinley said: "Justice has been done. The jury obviously saw through Mr Devine's lies.

"For legal reasons, I will not be making any further comment at this time."

Simon Clements, head of the Crown Prosecution Service special crime division, said: "Jim Devine submitted invoices for services that he had neither paid for nor received. In doing so, he took advantage of the trust that had been placed in him by virtue of the public office he held.

"Submitting a false invoice is plainly dishonest, regardless of why it has been done or who has done it. We say there is no excuse for such conduct and, with today's conviction, it is clear the jury agreed."

Devine told the court he acted on advice given to him with a "nod and a wink" during a boozy conversation in a House of Commons watering hole, and he even tried to pin the blame on his former office manager Marion Kinley.

The disgraced former union official told the court from the witness box he found Ms Kinley had paid herself extra cash of £1,000 over time and £4,300 as a bonus.

He said he went straight to the fees office to take control of his account and shortly after, Ms Kinley went on sick leave.

Tom O'Donnell, a cleaning company boss and pub landlord, said in evidence Devine told him he was being "stitched up" by a former secretary.

But the jury saw through the defences put to them by Devine and convicted him on two of three counts of false accounting he faced.

On the first count they agreed with the defence case, that Devine had paid for two batches of cleaning work through Tom O'Donnell Hygiene and Cleaning for £180 each.

However, he was found guilty of the second charge, that he got somebody else to complete three invoices from the cleaning company for £360, £360 and £2,160.

These cleaning receipts that he copied from one original blank invoice were submitted by the former MP between July 2008 and May 2009.

The jury also found him guilty on the third count, that he asked his printing company, Armstrong Printing Limited, to mark two invoices "received with thanks", to indicate he had paid for orders.

However, he never handed over any cash for the two ghost orders, worth £2,400 and £3,105, and Devine pocketed the money after submitting the receipts to the fees office between March and April 2009.

The prosecution said it was no coincidence Devine went out of the red in his bank account as the claim for £2,400 went in.

Mr Wright said: "The money he received from the fees office was sufficient to extinguish his overdraft."

Under cross-examination, Devine's story began to unravel.

After he contradicted himself a number of times Mr Wright asked: "Mr Devine, are you just making this up as you go along?"

"No, absolutely not," Devine said.

The jury disagreed, and they found him guilty on two counts.

In respect of all five cleaning receipts that were examined in court, Devine said the work was done on his London flat in Elliott's Row, a short hop over the River Thames from Parliament.

He told the court the first two invoices for £180 each related to services done by a Polish cleaner called Larissa, employed by the publican of Devine's local in Elephant and Castle, Mr O'Donnell. The jury accepted his account for these claims that they were filled in by either Larissa or Mr O'Donnell.

The landlord of the Prince of Wales, however, gave evidence to say he only gave Devine one blank receipt for a previous legitimate job.

Jurors agreed with the prosecution that before Devine filled it in for Mr O'Donnell to verify, the disgraced MP made photocopies.

The former backbencher said the three cleaning receipts relating to the second count were for work carried out by a team of three people, headed up by a different woman called Larissa.

During the trial the two Larissas were called "Larissa number one" and "Larisa number two", in an attempt to avoid confusion.

The jury agreed with Mr Wright that the work was never done, and Devine used the blank invoices to give the impression that it was.

Mr Wright said: "Larissa, Tommy and Arthur did not exist."

In respect of the falsified printing invoices, Devine said he thought he could transfer money from his parliamentary communications allowance in order to fund staffing costs.

He claimed he was still paying Ms Kinley after she had gone off sick, and he needed cash to pay a member of staff who he refused to name.

The mysterious employee was called "Miss X" throughout the trial.

In an attempt to give credibility to his story, Devine said from the witness box he was told "with a nod and a wink" by a Steve McCabe, MP for Birmingham Sellyoak, to get a "friendly printer" to give him a false invoice.

Devine told the court his colleague said over a drink in the House of Commons Strangers Bar: "Get yourself a receipt and make a claim."

Gavin Millar QC, defending, cross examined Mr McCabe.

He said of Devine: "His recollection is you had been to some sort of do in the afternoon or early evening, and you were quite merry."

But the MP said that would have been "quite unlikely" considering he was suffering with colitis at the time.

Devine said a clerk at the fees office overheard him ask Jennifer McCrea, the secretary at Armstrong Printing, to make out the ghost invoice, and did not tell him he was doing anything wrong.

Mr Wright told the jury: "The invoices were fiction. No such costs had been incurred.

"It was merely a device used by Mr Devine in which to receive a substantial amount of public money to which he was not entitled."

He also said Miss X was another person Devine invented to back up his account.

Mr Wright said: "If Miss X existed, it would not have made much difference. It was still a false document to obtain money to which he was not entitled.

"It's as much a figment of Mr Devine's imagination as a great deal of this case."

Mr Wright said Devine knew what he was doing, and his greed pushed him to claim more and more.

He said: "What he was engaged in was dishonest. It was fraud on the public purse and he knew it.

"It was a fraud that started out small and once he was satisfied that he could get away with it, it got even greater.

"£180 became £360. And then after that, £2,400, then £3,105."

The prosecutor said Devine could not get anyone to come to court to back up his story, because he had made it all up himself.

He said: "Mr Devine remains in a minority of one, because each and every time someone was asked as a witness, or an MP was brought along to give an account, it doesn't bear much resemblance to his memory of events."

A Scotland Yard spokesman said the force welcomed today's guilty verdicts, which he said came after "a thorough and detailed investigation of James Devine's parliamentary claims".

Matthew Sinclair, director of the Taxpayers' Alliance, said: "Taxpayers will be relieved that in another expenses case justice has been done. After dismissing the arrogant assertion that they were above the law, the courts have again rejected MPs' pathetic excuses for false claims.

"The expenses scandal in the last parliament dealt a huge blow to public confidence. As proper punishments are handed out to those who broke the rules, and with robust checks and proper transparency in place to stop new abuses, politicians can start to rebuild trust.

"There now needs to be a strong sentence for Jim Devine, who didn't plead guilty and has been convicted on multiple counts, to reflect the seriousness of lying to exploit access to taxpayers' money and establish a proper deterrent."