Lesley Freestone, who worked at the Cornwall-based brewer and operator of 170 pubs and hotels across the south-west for 42 years, admitted fraud at Truro Crown Court and was sentenced to five years in prison.
The 65-year-old from Par, who worked at St Austell between 1974 and 2016 and had access to payments systems, was discovered to have been duplicating invoices and processing payments into her own accounts.
It was only after her retirement that the brewery reviewed its accounting systems following the acquisition of Bath Ales in 2016 and discovered hundreds of fraudulent payments made by Freestone, who rose to become the company’s purchase ledger supervisor and was said to have had had “unfettered access to payments systems”.
Between 2007 and 2016, Freestone was found to have stolen at total of £444,329.16.
While sentencing, Judge Simon Carr said: “The fraud had a degree of sophistication, creating a false paper trail to hide money in your accounts.
“More importantly, I know – as all Cornwall knows – how St Austell Brewery has positioned itself in the community and how this will impact everyone who works there.”
Impact on staff bonuses
According to an impact statement from St Austell Brewery’s financial director, profits had been affected by Freestone’s actions, meaning that shareholders received lower dividends and employees received lower bonuses than entitled as a consequence.
The statement said: “The biggest impact is on the ethos of the company.
“It is a family business and despite its growth over the years, it has kept a paternalistic approach. Her duplicitous approach has shocked the company from directors to the staff.
“Other members of staff may have their reputations tarnished due to their association with the brewery.”
While Freestone was sentenced in December 2019, reporting restrictions have only recently been lifted in light of charges against a co-defendant being dropped.