Northern Ireland news

Former civil servant from Co Down who stole £192,000 from LPS jailed

The former civil servant from Co Down was jailed for a year

A FORMER civil servant from Co Down who stole £192,000 from Land and Property Services (LPS) over a 12-year period has been jailed for a year.

Michael Phillip Russell (62) from The Old Distillery, Comber appeared today at Belfast Crown Court.

Judge Neil Rafferty QC spoke of a "shocking fall from grace" from a man with no previous convictions and warned anyone who breached the trust of their employers should expect custody.

Russell admitted two counts of fraud by abuse of position and six counts of fraud by false representation with his offending amounting to a loss of £192,000 to LPS from 2007 to 2019.

Russell - described as a "trusted civil servant" - previously worked for the Rates Collection Agency and moved to LPS when it was created in 2007.

He had extensive knowledge of the rates system and as part of his middle management role was tasked to process refunded rates payments of up to £5,000, which occasionally occurred due to overpayments.

In 2019 it emerged Russell had made a number of authorised refunds which he paid to himself using various means such as different addresses.

Saying his offending required "certain guile and cunning", Judge Rafferty spoke of a "significant" added element to Russell's criminality involving an female friend.

Described by the Judge as "elderly and vulnerable", the woman knew Russell worked for LPS and gave him blank cheques to pay her rates bills.

Russell - who the pensioner had "complete trust" in - then lodged these cheques into his own account.

When Russell's criminality was detected, he went missing for several days before being arrested on September 26, 2019. Instead of being taken into custody, he was detained in a psychiatric hospital for a period.

Judge Rafferty revealed Russell has raised the issue of being put under pressure by others.

However, Crown barrister Philip Henry said "we don't accept that assertion", adding Russell admitted he was "living well, holidaying well and socialising well on foot of these monies."

Defence barrister Ian Turkington cited his client's action as a "breach of trust" and described him as a "man of hitherto good character", telling of the stigma his actions have caused him and his family.

Judge Rafferty warned Russell of the consequences of failing to comply with his licence conditions when released from jail.

He also made a compensation order of £89,000 - the total amount of Russell's frozen assets - to be paid to LPS.

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