Secrets of NHS 'fraud' found in briefcase: Jury is told of alleged plot to swindle Wessex health authority of hundreds of thousands of pounds. Roger Sawyer reports

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THE SCALE of a plot to defraud the National Health Service of hundreds of thousands of pounds was only discovered when the friend of a health authority officer broke into a briefcase he had been given, a court was told yesterday.

Hamer Norman, compliance manager for Wessex Regional Health Authority, gave the briefcase to a friend the day after he had been suspended from work.

Mr Norman, and a fellow health officer, James Lewis, were both suspended after a new director of information technology began investigating irregularities in payments.

Winchester Crown Court has been told that Mr Lewis and Mr Norman were involved in a fraud with a contractor which took almost pounds 400,000 from the NHS over a four-year period.

David Elfer QC, for the prosecution, had told the jury that the plot was hatched by Arthur Tully, his employee Richard Haver, and a consultant, William Baillie, along with the two health authority managers. Mr Tully owned the consultancy firm which took over a contract to implement new computer technology for the health authority. Mr Tully sold the company but remained in charge of the contract.

The court was told that the five men created a slush fund in which pounds 15,000 a month was paid to Mr Baillie's consultancy. The five also made thousands out of bogus invoices for services and goods.

Any questions about their activities were fobbed off, the jury was told. However, this changed when the authority's new director of information technology, Rosemary Storr, took up her appointment in September 1990. She brought in help to investigate payment irregularities involving the firm Mr Tully had sold, now called Istel. In particular, she was concerned about a consumables bill for pounds 275,000 which had already been paid.

Mr Elfer said: 'By February 1991, it was apparent that the bubble was about to burst. Somebody was now in the driving seat at Wessex who was asking real questions and who was not prepared to be fobbed off. The two compliance officers (Mr Norman and Mr Lewis) were suspended in March 1991. The two men were told they could take personal items from the office before they were locked up.'

On the day of his suspension, Mr Norman rang a consultant colleague, Malcolm Pimlock, the court heard. Mr Elfer said that Mr Norman told his friend that he had some papers that he did not want Ms Storr to see. They met the following day for a pub lunch and Mr Norman handed over a briefcase. Mr Elfer told the jury that Mr Pimlock's curiosity got the better of him and he broke the code on the lock. Inside he discovered invoiced consultancy work, details of Jersey bank accounts and limited companies, and other documents. He got in touch with Ms Storr and the police were called in.

Mr Tully, 58, of Chandler's Ford; Mr Norman, 55, of Weeke; and Mr Baillie, 43, of Romsey, all in Hampshire, all deny conspiracy to defraud Wessex Health Authority between July 1987 and March 1991.

Mr Lewis, 56, of Bishopstoke, Hampshire, is unable to stand trial because of illness. The charge against him has been adjourned indefinitely.

Mr Haver, 47, of Chandler's Ford, , has admitted conspiracy to defraud and will be sentenced at the end of the trial, which was adjourned until Monday.