Town clerk denies spending council cash

A TOWN clerk was sacked after she was accused of buying grass seed and paint for her own use with her council's petty cash, an employment tribunal heard.

A TOWN clerk was sacked after she was accused of buying grass seed and paint for her own use with her council's petty cash, an employment tribunal heard.

Heather Williams was confronted by high-ranking members of Newmarket Town Council after receipts showing the purchases were checked, the hearing in Bury St Edmunds was told yesterday.

But the former clerk, who travelled back to Suffolk from her new home in France for the five-day tribunal, said she had full authority to pay for items using her own credit card and reimburse herself from petty cash at a later date.

During the hearing, Jeremy Cole, chairman of the three-strong panel, was told the alleged misconduct came to light in November 2004, when Michael Jefferys served as Newmarket Mayor.

Grass seed, a window scraper, hacksaw blades, pest control equipment, primer and filler had all been purchased – and Mr Jefferys claimed enquiries had shown they were not intended for town council use.

“Mrs Williams had paid for these items using her own credit card and sought reimbursement. This was obviously a very serious matter,” he said.

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“At that point, my personal view was of confusion, because I could not believe this was happening but I had been persuaded by the facts and the evidence.

“Mrs Williams, when confronted with the allegation, was not at all certain as to how to reply. My view at that point was that she had done this, but I could not understand the motivation for it.

“We felt there was something very much amiss. Paint turned up in suspicious circumstances, then a box of grass seed was discovered beneath the desk. Again the circumstances were suspicious.

“It was assumed that Mrs Williams had brought the items back to the town council to show she had not taken them. There was no explanation, apart from that she had planted both back in the council chamber.”

Two further allegations later emerged, when town keeper Tim Robinson suggested bark chippings and kneepads had also been brought using petty cash and taken home by Mrs Williams.

She was then suspended and a date set for a disciplinary hearing, which took place on January 6, 2005.

Mr Jefferys said: “It was felt she had not only brought items for her own use with council funds, but then tried to cover up by planting items back in the council chamber.

“The trust we had in the responsible financial officer had been broken and it was agreed her employment with the council should be terminated immediately.”

An appeal took place at a later date – although Mr Jefferys admitted the council's procedures for this had “let us down”. He said, however, that advice had been sought from outside bodies before any further action was taken.

Cross-examining Mr Jefferys, Mrs Williams said she had carried out the practise of ordering goods for the council throughout her employment.

“If a need was identified, it was my job as responsible financial officer to purchase items to meet that need,” she said.

“It was quite usual for items to be purchased by me using my credit card and councillors were aware I brought things for use by the town council. For them to say otherwise I'm afraid is just not true.”

Mrs Williams, who lived in Fornham All Saints before moving to France, also suggested the paint and grass seed, found in the council chamber, could have been misplaced amid the chaos of building work in the next-door kitchen.

The hearing is expected to continue today.

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