A former MEP is facing a seven-year prison sentence after he admitted fiddling his expenses by tens of thousands of pounds, using the money to fund a love of fine wine and a new car.
Tom Wise, who was formerly an MEP for the UK Independence Party (Ukip) and then became independent following the allegations, finally confessed yesterday that he had masterminded a fraud that saw him siphon off around £36,000 of public money into his own bank account. He had originally denied the charges against him.
The 61-year-old, elected as an MEP for the East of England in 2004, spent a year profiting from a £3,000 allowance designed to cover secretarial costs. Wise told officials that he was handing the money to his 62-year-old researcher, Lindsay Jenkins. However, Mrs Jenkins was paid £500 a month and the remainder stayed in a bank account controlled by the former MEP, London's Southwark Crown Court heard.
Wise, from Leighton Buzzard in Bedfordshire, used the fund to pay for a lifestyle that included a passion for fine wines. The court was told that he used around £3,500 of the public money to pay for importing two wines, and a further £6,500 went on a dark green Peugeot 206. He probably maintained the deception by asking his researcher to sign blank documents which he filled in later, the court heard.
Once he had been exposed by a newspaper sting, Wise quickly began repaying £25,530 in an apparent bid to avoid further investigation. "He did so because he had been caught and was trying to minimise the trouble he was in," said Mark Fenhalls, prosecuting. Had he continued with the alleged fraud through his five-year term in office, he could have made £180,000 in allowances.
Wise had denied false accounting. But with the court due to hear evidence against him from Ukip leader Nigel Farage, he began to negotiate a deal to change his plea. The trial was adjourned, with Wise confessing yesterday. A charge of money laundering was dropped. He will be sentenced next Wednesday and could become the first British politician to be jailed for fiddling expenses.
Mrs Jenkins was cleared of false accounting and using criminal property.
Another former Ukip MEP, Ashley Mote, 73, was jailed for nine months for benefit fraud in 2007. Paul Nuttall, the chairman of Ukip, said in a statement: "Tom Wise broke faith with the UK Independence Party, which is why the whip was withdrawn. We believe as a party it is vital as a matter of public confidence that justice is done."
* Alan Duncan, the Tory frontbench spokesman on prisons, was cleared by the Commons standards watchdog yesterday of wrongly claiming tens of thousands of pounds in mortgage interest payments on his second home.