Police hunt Aids charity's missing pounds 500,000: Former treasurer disappeared after black group ordered examination of accounts. Jason Bennetto reports

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The Independent Online
BRITAIN'S only national Aids charity for black people is being investigated by the police after the disappearance of about pounds 500,000 from its funds.

Detectives are searching for the former treasurer of the Black HIV/Aids Network (Bhan), Bijon Sinha, and fear he has left the country. The Charity Commission has been informed and the Department of Health and several regional health authorities have suspended funding while the inquiry takes place. The missing money amounts to more than the charity's annual budget.

The alleged fraud at the London- based charity was discovered in November last year. The organisation's new director, Esmee Sargeant, became suspicious about the accounting procedures shortly after joining the group in 1993. Its accounts had been audited by a company which is believed to have been jointly run by Mr Sinha.

Mr Sinha disappeared shortly after the charity's management committee voted in November to have the accounts re-examined. He has contacted the group through his solicitors to deny that he unlawfully took funds, but has refused to reveal his whereabouts to the police.

A fresh audit has been carried out on the charity's last two and half years' accounts, details of which have been obtained by the newspaper Capital Gay.

The draft audit reveals that for the year ending 31 March 1992, cheques to the value of pounds 67,500 were written to Mr Sinha, plus pounds 110,000 in unidentified expenditure. The draft audit for the following year shows pounds 182,073 in cheques to Mr Sinha and pounds 29,731 in unidentified expenditure. Further payments to Mr Sinha have been found in the first half of the current financial year. The charity's total income for 1992 was only pounds 369,000 and pounds 447,000 the following year.

Mr Sinha, who is in his thirties, has been treasurer since the group was set up in 1989. The accounts for his first two years are currenty being re-audited.

Ms Sargeant said that she was 'shocked' at the scale of the alleged fraud and found it 'very surprising' that it had gone undetected for so long.

She said: 'We have acted swiftly to handle this affair. We have taken immediate steps to ensure nothing like it will happen again. Once we suspected there were financial irregularities we immediately contacted the police and the Charity Commission.'

Detective Inspector Simon Goddard, of Shepherds Bush CID, west London, who is heading the inquiry, said: 'We are treating the case as systematic theft from the charity's funds. We urgently want to track down and speak to the former treasurer, Bijon Sinha.'

The charity provides home and community care and education in HIV, including multilingual counselling services for black people. Most of its work is done in London, but it also trains workers throughout the country.

South-west Thames Regional Health Authority, one of about 20 organisations - including local authorities and district health authorities - that fund the charity, is withholding pounds 12,700 of its pounds 48,000 two-year grant until the inquiry is completed. A spokesman said: 'We are satisfied with the action taken by Bhan following their discovery of the missing money.'

Since March 1992, the Department of Health has given the charity at least pounds 240,000, some via health authorities. A grant of pounds 40,000 was intended for this year, but payment has been suspended.