17 Feb 2014

Benefit thief councillor won't resign - Lib Dem again

A shamed Tiverton councillor is refusing to resign despite receiving a suspended jail sentence for a £3,800 benefits fiddle against his own council.

Kevin Wilson will be able to remain on Mid Devon District Council because his suspended jail term was only 10 weeks, three short of the 13 weeks which would have triggered an automatic disqualification.

He was also ordered to pay just £260 of the £5,000 that it cost the council to prosecute him, meaning taxpayers are more out of pocket from taking him to court than from his original fiddle.

Former Liberal Democrat Wilson, 55, swindled his housing and council tax benefits by lying about annuity payments which he was using secretly to send his teenage daughter to a £9,000-a-year public school.

When he was investigated he lied to officials and claimed the money came from selling a Mercedes car which he had bought to improve his image when he was Mayor of Tiverton.

In reality he never sold the car at all and was forced to change his plea half way through his trial after the prosecution uncovered his lies.

He has since resigned from the Liberal Democrat party but remains as an independent. He cannot be removed because the coalition government abolished the national disciplinary system for councils in the Localism Act.

Wilson admitted two offences of benefits fraud and was jailed for 10 weeks, suspended for two years, and ordered to pay £260 costs and to carry out 200 hours' unpaid community work by Recorder Adrian Hughes QC, at Exeter Crown Court.

He is already repaying the £3,866 overpayment through a £45 a fortnight deduction from the housing benefits which he is still claiming.

The sentence is no long enough to trigger a disqualification from public office under the Local Government Act because it is less than three months long.

Wilson’s barrister told the court he has no intention of resigning because it is an issue for his constituents and his £398 monthly allowance is his only income other than benefits

The Recorder told him:
These offences are significantly aggravated by the fact that you held a public role as a councillor with Mid Devon District Council and were employed by Devon County Council until 2012.

Your dishonesty continued in a context in which you occupied a position of trust and was compounded by your failure to adequately and honestly explain the facts when you were investigated. This case has required enormous work and cost to public expenditure which I am told is £5,000 but I accept you have very little income and were under serious financial pressure at the time of these offences. That was absolutely no excuse for dishonesty.

You were seeking to protect your teenaged daughter and maintain her uninterrupted education in the context of a traumatic divorce and financial difficulties. You were preserving resources to pay her school fees with the result you were digging an ever deeper financial hole for yourself.

I consider that the serious aggravating factor of your public role takes this case into a different bracket.
During his trial the jury heard how Wilson lied about a £1,943 a year income from a cashed-in pension policy which he was using to pay a proportion of £9,000 a year fees to Wellington School in Somerset for his daughter.

He made an unofficial agreement with the school he would continue paying them the pension money for years to come to cover the arrears which he was building up.

He lied to investigators about where the money came from and lied to the jury at his trial, where he still claimed to have sold his car. Checks showed he still owns it.

Mr Martin Meeke, QC, told the sentencing hearing that there is no longer a disciplinary system in place which would allow the council to force Wilson to resign.

He said under the Local Government Act he would be forced out of office if he received a sentence of more than three months. He said the council is recovering the benefit and reduced the amount he owes to £2220.30.

Lee Bremridge, defending, said Wilson had not set out to make dishonest claims but done so while under enormous financial pressure and while suffering from depression as a result of his divorce. He said:
My client has already suffered significant punishment from the publicity surrounding this case and by the loss of good character. He maintains his position as a councillor by reason of his constituents and is due for re-election in 2015. He feels it is an issue for his constituents if he remains a councillor. I invite you to pass a sentence which will allow him to continue and allow his constituents to decide. This is not only because it is his only source of income other than benefits but also with his background of personal problems it is the only thing in his life at the moment, with the exception of his daughter, and is keeping him focused.

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