Ex-MP found guilty of £24,000 expenses fraud

A former Labour MP has been found guilty of making fraudulent expenses claims to fund a cocaine habit while in office.

Jared O’Mara was convicted of six counts of fraud after trying to claim around £24,000 of taxpayers’ money for his “extravagant lifestyle”.

The 41-year-old, who represented the constituency of Sheffield Hallam from 2017 to 2019, went on trial for submitting “dishonest” invoices to the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (Ipsa) between June and August 2019.

Leeds Crown Court heard that he made four claims for a total of £19,400 from a “fictitious” organisation called Confident About Autism South Yorkshire, which jurors were told referred to his friend, John Woodliff.

O’Mara also submitted a false contract of employment for Woodliff, “pretending” he worked as a constituency support officer.

Gareth Arnold
Gareth Arnold (South Yorkshire Police/PA)

The ex-MP was found not guilty of two fraud charges over invoices from another friend, Gareth Arnold, for media and PR work that prosecutors had claimed was never carried out.

But he was convicted of an offence of fraud after emailing Ipsa in February 2020, falsely claiming the police investigation into him had been completed and that he was entitled to be paid the two invoices relating to Arnold, which totalled £4,650.

Arnold, who became O’Mara’s chief of staff in June 2019, was found guilty of three fraud charges, and cleared of three.

Woodliff was found not guilty of one offence of fraud.

O’Mara, who appeared in court by video-link throughout the trial, did not visibly react to the verdicts.

Arnold and Woodliff shook hands before Woodliff left the dock, thanking the jury.

O’Mara and Arnold will be sentenced at the same court on Thursday.

Judge Tom Bayliss KC told O’Mara he must attend court, saying: “I have permitted you until now to attend via video-link, but I’m afraid that indulgence has now ceased.”

During the trial, the court heard that Ipsa – which was set up after the expenses scandal to regulate MPs’ staffing and business costs – did not pay out any of the claims due to a lack of evidence that the work had been done.

Jared O’Mara court case
John Woodliff (Jon Super/PA)

Opening the case just over two weeks ago, prosecutor James Bourne-Arton told the jury: “O’Mara viewed Ipsa, and the taxpayers’ money that they administered, as a source of income that was his to claim and use as he wished, not least in the enjoyment of his extensive cocaine habit.”

The court heard that Arnold went to South Yorkshire Police in July 2019 after “reaching a point at which he was no longer willing to participate in the fraud”.

In Arnold’s call to police, played to jurors, he said: “It’s a bit of a tricky one but yesterday I spoke to the 999 service and the mental health crisis team about my employer, who I believe is suffering a severe psychotic episode and has delusions of a conspiracy against him.

“I also believe he has been submitting fake expense claims to the Government very recently.”

Jurors heard that the invoices for Confident About Autism were in different formats, had inconsistent references, and that one bore a date later than the time it was submitted for payment.

All were either rejected or not processed, with one being rejected by Ipsa three times in June and July.

While Ipsa was raising concerns with O’Mara about the claims, a South Yorkshire Police investigation prompted by Arnold’s call revealed that the MP was “living to or beyond his means and in dire need of cash”, Mr Bourne-Arton said.

Arnold’s conversation with police described O’Mara as “plainly unable to cope with the office he held, in poor mental health and heavily addicted to cocaine that he was abusing in prodigious quantities”, the jury was told.

The court heard that O’Mara had a “dysfunctional” office which was “haemorrhaging staff” at the time he made the claims.

Former case worker Kevin Gregory-Coyne said O’Mara went to his constituency office “once or twice” in six months and attended one staff meeting while apparently “on some sort of substance”.

Jurors heard that one message from Arnold to a friend in April 2019 described O’Mara as being “a few k in debt with a dealer”.

Arnold – the only one of the three defendants to give evidence – said he “absolutely” did the work on both invoices that related to him and claimed O’Mara would “regularly” call him for help before putting him on the payroll as chief of staff in June 2019.

Arnold said that after O’Mara fired all his staff in around April that year, “everything went into standstill” and he became an “absentee MP”.

He said he had “lost his patience” with O’Mara after he apparently drank a litre of vodka before a TV appearance and sent a young female staff member messages “calling her things like ‘my little angel’ and ‘you’re beautiful'”.

O’Mara won Sheffield Hallam for Labour from former Liberal Democrat leader Sir Nick Clegg in 2017, but later left the party after a series of controversies.

He stayed in office as an independent MP but did not contest the 2019 general election.

Nick Price, head of Special Crime and Counter Terrorism at the Crown Prosecution Service, said: “These claims for taxpayers’ money were blatantly false and O’Mara and Arnold knew that full well.

“O’Mara invented a fictional autism charity and then proceeded to submit fake invoices, hoping they would slip through as legitimate claims.

“Arnold assisted O’Mara in the deception, submitting a number of bogus claims, and was happy to go along with the fraud before eventually coming clean to the police.

“While serving as a Member of Parliament, O’Mara viewed taxpayers’ money as source of income that was his to claim and use as he wished.

“His actions fell a long way short of the conduct expected of MPs and, quite frankly, taxpayers have the right to expect better.”