Eyob Sellassie, who fraudulently attempted to claim more than £100,000 of Gift Aid for the now defunct charity African Aids Action, has escaped a jail sentence.
Sellassie, 45, of Rainham in Essex, was last month convicted at the Old Bailey in London of two counts of fraud by false representation for attempting to claim Gift Aid on made-up donations to AAA totalling more than £415,000.
Sellassie was the founder and chair of the charity, which registered with the Charity Commission in 2001 and had objects of the "relief of sickness of people suffering from HIV" in Africa, the Caribbean and elsewhere.
The court found he had used the details of more than 1,000 people bought from a marketing agency as part of the scam.
Investigators said that some of the people who supposedly donated were dead, while others said they had not given money to the charity.
Sellassie claimed £104,008.25 in Gift Aid tax relief in two claims made in June last year. A successful claim for £150 in Gift Aid was processed by HM Revenue & Customs in May 2013, but suspicions were raised when the charity claimed to have had a huge spike in donations just a month later. He subsequently withdrew the claim and blamed a lodger he called Tesfai Teckle.
But investigators found no trace of Teckle at Sellassie's home in Rainham, or anyone of that name connected to the charity.
Passing sentence today at Kingston Crown Court, the judge, Recorder Sallie Bennett-Jenkins, gave Sellassie a 15-month prison sentence, suspended for two years, and ordered him to pay £1,000 costs.
"Had matters progressed to the culmination you sought – by the provision of false details – the revenue made from taxpayers' money would have been defrauded of a substantial amount of money," she said.
"You are a man of mature years and by your actions lost your good character. I have considered the factual nature of the case and, while the application had progressed to some great extent, I do take into account that you withdrew the claims.
"However, that does not absolve you from criminal responsibility. I accept that you are somebody who suffers from health difficulties, including depressive disorders since 2001.
"It may be that this contributed towards this offence. Nevertheless, you acted in a thoroughly dishonest way. It is undoubtedly the case that you abused the charity and your position as a leading figure.
"Taking into account your previous good character, mature years, bad health and the fact that you did ultimately withdraw the claims, I have been persuaded – only just – that I am able to take an exceptional course and pass a suspended sentence."
Sellassie was also disqualified from being a director of any limited company for a period of five years.
William Hays, prosecuting, described Sellassie's crime as "a sustained attack on the integrity of the system of Gift Aid".
Sellassie’s barrister, Alistair Polson, said that Sellassie had suffered from depression since 2001, which was exacerbated when he came to trial at the Old Bailey. Polson said Sellassie led a "frugal existence" and was a man who had never claimed benefits while living in the UK.
Since his arrest, Sellassie has embarked on a new romantic relationship, but this has come under stress during his trial, said Polson.
African Aids Action was at the centre of a dispute between the commission and one of its former case workers, David Orbison, over the regulator’s actions towards the charity.
Orbison, who was asked to investigate the charity by the commission, made a complaint under the Public Interest Disclosure Act that the regulator was breaching its statutory duty by failing to take sufficiently robust action against the charity.
He subsequently resigned from the commission and brought a case against it at the employment tribunal for claims including constructive dismissal and discrimination.