£25,000 charity fraudster must pay back only £1

A con artist whose £25,000 fraud left a Preston children's charity days from closure must pay back just £1, a court has ruled.

By The Newsroom
Tuesday, 16th May 2017, 8:47 pm
Updated Sunday, 4th June 2017, 9:43 pm
Fiona Barnes
Fiona Barnes

Fiona Barnes, who worked at the Space Centre charity, which provides help for disabled children, benefited from her crimes to the tune of £24,713, a Proceeds of Crime Act hearing at Preston Crown Court found.

But after hearing that Barnes – who faked cancer once her crimes came to light – had no assets, Judge Robert Altham ordered her to pay back the nominal amount of £1.

Barnes, 56, of Bridgend, Dunblane, Perthshire, was jailed for 15 months in September last year.

The ruling, at a proceeds of crime hearing in Preston, was slammed last night as “appalling” by former city Mayor Veronica Afrin.

Ex-councillor Afrin, who officially opened a new part of the Space Centre last year, said: “My God, how can that be justice? It’s horrendous.

“It’s just so unfair that this person has been allowed to get away with this.

“She conned the most vulnerable children and families in this area. She knew exactly what she was doing and the sort of people she was hurting by what she did.

“No one can give back what was lost by her actions. But to tell her she only needs to pay back £1 is appalling.

“It would have been nice for the centre to get back some money after all they have gone through. But now it looks like they won’t.

“It has hurt a lot of people and now this court decision is like being stabbed all over again, it just tears your heart out.

“I have always supported the Space Centre throughout my time as a councillor. I knew the three people who started it up more than 20 years ago.

“The staff and volunteers are all wonderful and, had they not been so determined to keep it open, I’m sure it would have been forced to close because of what this woman did.

“People just don’t know how near it was to going under. They almost had to start again from scratch and it is disgusting that the woman who caused it all won’t have to pay back what she took.”

Barnes, who faked cancer to avoid appearing in court last year, was sent to jail for 15 months for her crimes.

In addition to theft, married mother-of-two Barnes also pleaded guilty to perverting the course of justice with bogus documents she gave to the court indicating she was unfit to attend court because she was receiving chemotherapy.

Despite the £1 ruling, legislation allows investigators to revisit her finances if she does gain any assets in the future.

Barnes, known as Fiona Raven to her co-workers, obtained employment with the charity in 2010, saying she and her lecturer husband planned to move from Scotland to Lancaster so he could get work at a university.

Barnes was seen “like God” by staff and volunteers, as she had initially secured grants of £1m which enabled the purchase of the former Willows Child Development Centre to extend the existing Space building next door.

She also secured other genuine grants to develop their new project and also a potential Heritage Lottery Grant to preserve the Thomas Mawson gardens behind.

They believed her when she produced letters purporting to be from Trust funders to confirm that there was an additional £800,000 pledged to pay for the building conversion and specialist equipment for new sensory facilities.

But Barnes was spinning an intricate web of deception, hiding the theft of tens of thousands of pounds by forging convincing documents to make it look like she had secured an additional amount of funding – which never existed.

In June 2012 her contract came to an end but Barnes agreed to work for a further three months.

In August she told the charity she was taking a holiday, but she never returned and became uncontactable.

Anomalies were then discovered and a police probe was launched.

Bogus paperwork about nonexistent grants had been produced to mask the fact Barnes had actually stolen £24,700.

In September 2012 the charity was horrified to discover it owed £500,000 debts, and had no funds to pay builders for work on its project to expand facilities for severely disabled people.

While the probe was ongoing, she was jailed for similar offences in Scotland. While working for Social Enterprise Clydebank (SEC) Barnes was siphoning off huge sums of cash awarded by the Big Lottery Fund by falsifying invoices and forging various communications. The organisation went into liquidation two years earlier amid claims of mismanagement, with 26 people losing their jobs.