Eight fraudsters have been sentenced, including six jailed, for conning colleges out of more than half-a-million-pounds.
The sentences, handed out at Nottingham Crown Court on Tuesday, signalled the end a three-year in investigation, which centred on two companies – Training Options UK Ltd (TOUK) and FE Options Ltd.
It found staff forged documents to falsely claim students from Castle College, which merged with South Nottingham College last year, and North Warwickshire and Hinckley College, completed courses.
Castle College paid £475,391 for 583 students it believed completed a customer services or health and safety course, while North Warwickshire and Hinckley College paid £27,108 for 249 students it believed completed an occupational health and safety course.
However, no students completed either course between February and September in 2007.
Among those jailed were joint company directors Andrew Leathwood (43), of Waterpark Road, Prenton, and Carolanne Ravenscroft (57), of Yowley Road, Ewloe, in Clwyd.
Leathwood, found guilty following a trial of conspiring to defraud the colleges, benefited from the scam by more than £125,000 and was jailed for five years.
Ravenscroft, also found guilty following a trial of the same charge, benefited from the fraud by more than £70,000 and was jailed for three years.
General manager Kieran England (37), of Vermont Road, Crosby, Liverpool, was found guilty after a trial of conspiring to defraud the colleges and of making an article to use in connection with fraud. He received £20,000 above his normal wage from FE Options Ltd between June and October 2007 and was jailed for 33 months.
Administrators Leslie Hayes (44), and his wife Claire Hayes, 38, both of Burnt Oaks Close, Mansfield Woodhouse, pleaded guilty to conspiring to defraud the colleges.
He was sent to prison for three years, while she was jailed for 18 months. The pair were also banned from being a company director for four years.
Former Castle College employee Kay Edwards (45), of Heatherley Drive, Forest Town, Mansfield, admitted conspiring to defraud the college, having received a payment of £21,550 between June 2007 and September 2007 from TOUK. Edwards also admitted an unrelated count of insurance fraud.
She was jailed for 33 months for conspiring to defraud and three months, consecutively, for insurance fraud.
Steven Johnson (39), of Strathmore Drive, Liverpool, and Damion Johnstone (39), of Mossdale Drive, Rainhill, Merseyside, both received suspended sentences.
Johnson pleaded guilty to making an article to use in connection with fraud and was given six months in jail, suspended for one year, and 180 hours community service.
Johnstone, meanwhile, admitted conspiring to defraud Castle College, having received £21,650 above his normal wage from TOUK between December 2007 and February 2008 and £2,000 from Ravenscroft.
He was given 12 months in prison, suspended for one year, given 250 hours of community service and a three month curfew.
A South Nottingham College spokesperson said: “The college welcomes and supports the verdict and sentences handed down to those involved and hopes this serves as a suitable deterrent to others.
“Through the merger we took the opportunity to review our subcontracting procedures and are confident that these are robust enough to prevent any incidents like this taking place in future.”
A Skills Funding Agency spokesperson said: “The Agency is very pleased with the outcome in this case.
“We rigorously investigate any fraudulent activity of which we are made aware and carry out audits across the sector, to ensure that colleges and providers are fulfilling the requirements of their funding agreements and that public funds are being properly used.”
How the investigation unfolded
Nottinghamshire Police began investigating allegations of fraud at Castle College in December 2007.
It found Edwards put Hayes and Leathwood in touch with Castle College after discovering it had money to spend on providing training courses.
Edwards then obtained details of students who had previously completed courses at the college and passed these on to the training providers.
These details were used to fraudulently complete enrolment forms and other paperwork.
The investigation included examining more than 30 bank accounts and hundreds of emails. As part of the inquiry, 562 pages of witness statements were documented, 97 taped interviews were completed and a 6,000 page case file was compiled.
The investigation culminated in warrants being executed at six addresses – two in Nottinghamshire and four in Merseyside – in April 2010, with 64 police officers involved in co-ordinated strikes, including from Merseyside Police.
DC Nick Lowe, from the force’s Fraud Squad, said: “This was an incredibly lengthy and complex investigation into a well-planned and organised fraud. We now move into the next phase of seeking to use the Proceeds of Crime Act to ensure that those sentenced do not benefit further from their criminality.”