A former nurse has been jailed for 11 months after she admitted stealing almost £7,500 of patients’ money during a “sophisticated” forgery racket.
Sentencing Cathy Conway (36), of Clara Street, Lurgan, at Newry Crown Court, Judge Stephen Fowler QC said she was the “author of her misfortune’’ and described her offending as a “serious breach of trust’’ by the one-time staff nurse on vulnerable patients in her care.
Conway had pleaded guilty to 25 charges of forgery, one of false accounting, and a further charge of fraud by abuse of position.
Prosecution lawyer Geraldine McCullough told Newry Crown Court that Conway had worked at Longstone Hospital unit within the grounds of St Luke’s in Armagh, which cares for vulnerable patients and those with mental health difficulties.
The court was told that the hospital had a system in place for patients to hold monies in personal accounts to buy themselves clothing and other personal items and to pay for trips. To prevent fraud, any money withdrawn in a booklet by a nurse on behalf of a patient had to be countersigned by a senior nurse.
She said that in May 2009 the fraud came to light and staff discovered pages were found to have been torn out of account books.
“The defendant was suspended on full pay on May 22, 2009. A week later she resigned, but denied any wrongdoing.”
A full internal audit was then launched, Judge Fowler QC was told, and as part of the investigation other staff on three wards where the defendant had worked were spoken to about their counter signatures on documents to release patient monies.
“The signatures on numerous forms were false. Ultimately what transpired was that the defendant had forged these signatures.”
Ms McCullough said that as a result of a “complex fraud 31 patients had monies taken from their accounts totalling £7,434.”
The court was told that when Conway was confronted by the evidence “she claimed her signature on her forms were false and that another person was responsible”.
Ms McCullough added: “This was a cunning and sophisticated fraud perpetrated over an extensive period from 2007 to 2009. She denied to both her employer and the police when she was confronted about this.”
Judge Fowler said to date Conway had not given an “adequate explanation” as to why she had taken the patients’ money.
Said Judge Fowler: “This was a significant breach of trust by her. This fraud was perpetrated on some of our most vulnerable members of our society, patients suffering several mental and educational difficulties.”
The judge added that although none of the patients had been left out of pocket by Conway’s fraud, the Southern Health and Social Healthcare Trust had stood the loss by reimbursing all of the money to the victims.
Judge Fowler told the court that in mitigation he was taking into account the fact Conway had a clear criminal record, had “pleaded guilty at the earliest opportunity, and now suffers from mental health difficulties and incidents of self-harming.
He said: “As a result of this fraud, she has lost her job, her good name and standing in the community.
“Accordingly, there will be a sentence of 11 months in custody. I also direct that the psychiatric report in relation to her suicidal tendencies be delivered forthwith to the prison authorities.”
Judge Fowler adjourned a proposed confiscation hearing until next month to allow police to conduct an investigation into Conway’s financial affairs.