The former manager of a vital charity which acts as a lifeline for elderly and disabled people in Blackpool has admitted stealing tens of thousands of pounds from the organisation.
Kate Bethel pleaded guilty to defrauding community transport operator Rideability by falsifying bank transfers to make a personal gain of £46,000 when she appeared before Blackpool magistrates yesterday.
Furious bosses today said her actions had put the charity – which provides essential door-to-door transport for elderly and disabled people – under threat of closure.
Bethel, 44, of Clarendon Road, St Annes, has been sent to crown court for sentencing where she could be jailed.
Coun John Jones, Blackpool Council’s cabinet member for highways and transport, said: “Kate Bethel abused the trust placed upon her by the Rideability charity, Blackpool Council and, most of all, the elderly pensioners who she befriended and claimed to help.
“Her criminal activities could have badly damaged this precious service.”
As well as sentencing, Bethel will now also face a Proceeds of Crime hearing where authorities will seek to reclaim the stolen cash.
The fraud took place between April 2012 and June 2014 when Bethel worked as operations manager for Rideability.
Robert Castle, defending, told the court although his client pleaded guilty she might contest the final amount involved.
The Gazette understands the fraud was uncovered after an internal investigation was launched by Blackpool Council following concerns raised to them.
Coun Jones added: “Once it became apparent something was wrong, the council and Rideability worked together to swiftly expose (Bethel’s) self-serving criminal behaviour and immediately removed her from her post.
“Had we not done so, it would be no understatement to say it could have forced the cessation of the service which would have had a devastating effect on the many older people who use it.
“Since the issue was exposed additional controls and tighter accounting methods have been put in place to prevent this problem from happening again.”
Martin Wilson, chairman of the charity Disability Services which operates Rideability alongside the council, said: “We were shocked and saddened to learn about the fraud that was perpetrated by Kate Bethel who abused the trust we placed in her.
“She was on a good salary and this was clearly a premeditated, systematic and calculated fraud which has put at risk the many older and disabled people who we strive to help.
“The sad thing about this whole affair is that, since the charity moved to work within Blackpool Council, we’ve been able to provide help to more people than ever. Our mission now is to move on and ensure that continues.”
Disability Services ran Rideability, fully subsidised by the council to the tune of around £115,000 a year, until September 2013 when the council took the service in-house in order to make savings of £30,000 a year.
Since then the number of users has increased, and Rideability carried around 31,000 passengers in the last financial year 2013/14 - up 12,000 on the previous year.
It had been feared that the service would stop when the council could no longer provide the subsidy, but the savings were achieved because once it was brought in-house it was covered by a concessionary travel grant to the council.
Operating Monday to Saturday, provides a lifeline to people who cannot use conventional public transport because of disability or frailty.