Council worker jailed over theft

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A COURT has been told how soaring gambling debts forced a white collar council worker to steal public cash.

Ross Nichol’s losing streaks on the horses, dogs and football saw him end up with gambling losses of between £25,000 and £30,000.

The theft came to light when he was on holiday – and this week he was jailed for six months at Selkirk Sheriff Court.

The first offender from Nether Blainslie, Galashiels, admitted taking the money between January 1 2009 and August 30 last year while employed at the council’s HQ at Newtown St Boswells.

Over 18 months he embezzled £23,775 from his employers using a bank account that had been legally established in his name.

On August 5 last year a manager reviewing the council’s budget for sports coaching spotted a discrepancy and it was discovered 25-year-old Nichol had been processing cheques through the authorised account.

When he returned to his desk on August 9 he was questioned by the head of the education department.

Procurator fiscal Mark Keane told the court: “He was asked if he was responsible for money going missing, and he admitted he was.

“He said it was a relief it had all come to light and when he was asked why he had done it, said he had long-term gambling debts.”

Nichol was put on special leave and the police were alerted.

Mr Keane revealed: “He said he always had money problems and had gambled on horses, dogs, and football matches, with estimated losses of between £25,000 and £30,000.

Nichol’s solicitor Robert More confirmed that the full amount had been repaid by his client’s family, who expected repayment from their son.

Mr More went on: “That is a considerable burden which he will bear for a very long time indeed.”

The solicitor said the account set up in Nichol’s name had been done so a long time before he began embezzling money.

He said: “It was not set up for this, but because it was in place, it facilitated the raising of these cheques and the payment.”

He described Nichol as being of impeachable character who had contributed in a worthwhile manner to the community, and was well regarded socially.

Mr More told the sheriff: “He comes from a decent, hardworking family, who all remain supportive of him, but in no way condone what has led to this prosecution.

“He got himself into debt, particularly in relation to his gambling addiction, and very foolishly and naively, in an attempt to extradite himself, simply got himself into greater difficulty. This was not a pre-meditated course of conduct.

“This is someone who had a difficulty and that difficulty spiralled out of control.”

Mr More said the offence had led his client to confront his problems, and he was receiving help with his gambling addiction. And he said Nichol was petrified about being sent to jail, adding: “If mercy was to be shown, this is a compelling case.”

Sheriff Drummond retired from the bench for a few minutes, returning to deliver his sentence to a clearly nervous Nichol.

The sheriff commented: “The choice is a difficult and painful one. This is a young man who has not previously offended and who has led a socially responsible life and who comes from a supportive and caring background.

“He is an intelligent young man, who has become involved in a gambling addiction. He does not represent a danger to the public, but was in a position of trust in relation to public funds and was able to authorise payments into an account of which he was the beneficiary.

“He did that over a period of 18 months. The amount involved, and the period over which it was carried out, along with the breach of trust, is such that the appropriate disposal is, sadly, a custodial one.

Imposing the six-month jail term, Sheriff Drummond said he took account of Nichol’s “absolute candour and co-operation”.

A spokesman for Scottish Borders Council told TheSouthern: “Mr Nichol has not been an employee of the council for some months.

“While the council is satisfied that there are robust procedures in place to prevent the misuse of council funds, consideration is being given to any necessary amendments to improve procedures.”