Fraudster secretary Helen Hart jailed for four years
A former secretary has been jailed for four years after conning more than £300,000 from her former employers to fund her "lavish lifestyle."
Helen Maria Hart, 46, fleeced the company accounts to pay for a private jet to whisk her off to Paris, expensive cars, Premiership football tickets, rent and bills.
Yesterday, at Truro Crown Court, Hart sat impassively in the dock as Judge John Neligan passed sentence. He told her her actions were "a blatant and brazen breach of trust."
He said: "Your lifestyle was, if I may say so, a lavish one at the expense of your employer who trusted you and you so dishonestly abused."
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Hart had pleaded guilty to 25 counts of fraud, theft and deception between October 2005 and May 2012.
After starting work at PDP Green Consultants Ltd, in Truro, an architectural firm, as a typist she rose through the ranks to become company secretary.
Hart, of Illogan in west Cornwall, was in charge of the company cheque book and forged her boss's signature in order to milk the company dry.
At the time the firm was owned by Philip Desmonde.
Her activities only came to light when the company received a winding-up order from Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs (HMRC).
Before sentence was passed, Jo Martin, prosecuting, said Hart told people much of the money was inherited, including from a relative who was shot dead.
She regularly travelled to London to undergo cosmetic treatment, following dramatic weight loss and an image change, staying at the exclusive Dorchester hotel and going to the theatre.
Later, she took a 21-year-old man she met at her gym to a game at Chelsea FC, paying £5,000 for a hospitality box for the afternoon.
Hart also ordered a renovations company to carry out £1.5 million worth of work to a £3 million home she said she was about to buy.
The sale did not go through, although the local firm had already carried out at least £30,000 worth of work.
Miss Martin said Hart spent £65,000 in five years on high-end cars, including a Mercedes CLS, as well as a Lexus, BMW, Range Rover and Porsche.
She also ran-up a £25,000 bill at Harrods, spent £16,000 at the Dorchester, and £22,000 at Marks and Spencer.
The court was told her colleagues went almost the entire length of her deception without once suspecting their business was bankrolling her extravagant spending.
Miss Martin said: "This was not a fraud of necessity, it was fraud of greed.
"She put the company to the edge of insolvency.
"This was someone who was going the whole hog to create a persona and lifestyle, showing a very acute mind to live the way she wanted to live."
Piers Norsworthy, defending, said Hart was in a position of responsibility and expertise that belied her scant talents in accounting. He said: "Had the company been run properly, the directors would have spotted it (the deception)."
Mr Norsworthy said Hart initially took just a small amount of money, but that the scale of her offending snowballed.
Lavish life of high spender over as prison term begins...
As she wakes-up this morning in her austere prison cell, the lavish life-style Helen Hart swindled her way into will be a mere memory.
The days of driving an expensive car to the airport before stepping inside a private jet for a trip to Paris are over.
Today the 46-year-old former secretary faces her first full day behind bars after conning nearly £400,000 from her former employers to satisfy her craving to live the high life.
The confident, glamorous blonde who favours high-stiletto heels and figure-hugging designer clothes was a trusted member of staff at PDP Green Consulting Ltd, an architecture and civil engineering firm in Truro.
Her feline features were well-known in Cornish business circles, where she effortlessly brushed designer-clad shoulders with the wealthy.
However, a champagne life-style does not come cheap and Hart paid for it with the company cheque book she was in charge of.
With the stroke of a pen she siphoned off money that should have gone to the taxman.
Her avaricious ways brought her a £46,000 Mercedes car, a Porsche Boxster, a Range Rover, a BMW X5 and tickets for a Chelsea and Manchester City match.
To buy the Mercedes she used a Coutts bank account to carry out the transaction.
Cheques were used to pay her rent, water bills, work on a kitchen, wine and her Marks & Spencer bill.
A stay at luxury Bovey Castle hotel in Devon cost £7,816 – she also revelled in the opulence of London's Dorchester Hotel and trips to Harrods.
With a salary of £20,000-a-year she had to convince people she was a woman of means and could afford to indulge her expensive tastes. Ever-resourceful, she forged documents to persuade everyone she was a multi-millionaire.
One forged court order stamped with a Penzance County Court mark appeared to give Lloyds Bank in Truro permission to release £86 million to her.
While another forged paper purporting to be from the High Court of Justice, Queen's Bench Division, stated Hart was not to remove assets worth £90 million belonging to her husband.
Once Hart has finally bled the bank accounts dry, the game was finally up.
Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs (HMRC) hit the firm with a winding-up order, including a demand for costs, over £271,000 of unpaid tax in May 2011.
At the time, Philip Desmonde owned the firm and ran it with his wife Susanne. In an interview with the Mail on Sunday, Mrs Desmonde claimed the sneaky secretary stole more than money.
Mrs Desmonde said when Hart joined the company in 1994 she cut a dowdy figure but soon began copying her clothes, hair, car and hobbies. She claims Hart eventually edged her out of the company.
Mrs Desmonde told the newspaper: "I just faded from view until I'd almost ceased to exist.
"Helen Hart airbrushed me out of my own life using funds she'd stolen from my husband's company."
Hart was said to have shopped at a designer boutique Mrs Desmonde frequented, aping her Armani wardrobe, pearl necklaces and crimson nail polish.
She splashed out on a £7,000 pear-shaped diamond ring at the Truro jeweller's shop where Mr Desmonde had bought a similarly shaped diamond ring for his wife.
Mrs Desmonde added: "But what she tried to take off me went deeper – she didn't want just my money but my style, my status, my relationships.
"It's the stuff of a female thriller, something like Single White Female – albeit without the bloodshed."
Mr Desmonde no longer owns the firm and remains a shareholder. Hart's devious nature even stretched to local charities.
Keen to masquerade as a philanthropist with deep pockets, she strung charities along with false pledges of generous cheques that never materialised.
Since her unmasking as a conniving thief, PDP Green Consulting Ltd has worked hard to bring the company back from financial ruin.
It's doubtful any of the 19 members of staff Hart once smiled across the office at will have any sympathy for her sitting in her prison cell.
Roger Green, managing director at the firm, said despite the fraudster's best efforts they were "back on track and stronger than ever".
He said: "We escaped the winding-up order by the skin of our teeth because the staff and directors worked so hard and we've cleared all our debts.
"It was an incredibly stressful time and the future of the firm was at stake.
"Obviously I'm very angry and very bitter over what Helen Hart did to us.
"She betrayed all of us – but we have survived."