A “popular and respected” GP who embezzled more than £1.1 million in “six weeks of madness” to pay for his online gambling habit has been jailed for three years and four months.
Experienced doctor Rumi Chhapia stole the funds from the healthcare group he founded, in 65 transfers during a 41-day period in 2020, to pay off his debts playing slot machines and roulette.
The money was taken from Portsmouth Primary Care Alliance Limited (PPCA), a collection of GP practices in and around the Hampshire city, whose role included tendering out-of-hour GP services.
The court heard he gambled away a total of £2.5 million, of which he recouped £1.2 million of his losses.
Sentencing Chhapia, 45, for fraud by abuse of position, Judge Keith Cutler said: “You abused the trust placed on you and took £1.1 million from the PPCA, money which should have been for GP surgeries to develop their services.
“This is a very serious abrogation of your responsibilities as a doctor – your duty as a GP should have been to provide the very best of care to your patients, that should have been the pinnacle of your care, but you were dishonest.
“You were seduced by your addiction to gambling.”
He added: “You are a man of good character, you have excellent references, you are a GP who has such skills and abilities that people have written to me, and you have shown your expertise time and time again and you are a popular and respected doctor.
“The last thing a judge wants to do is to send a man such as you, a doctor with such skills and abilities, to prison.”
Matthew Lawson, prosecuting, told Portsmouth Crown Court that Chhapia, a father-of-one from Southsea, stole £1,133,704.50, of which he went on to repay £238,000.
Mr Lawson said: “He made a full confession to taking the money from the PPCA. He had run into financial trouble and tried to repair his finances through online gambling but only proceeded to lose more.”
He said the defendant, who was a director of PPCA, had been able to access the funds unhindered when a colleague was signed off sick.
He said Chhapia had even carried on stealing the money after being confronted by colleagues.
Mr Lawson added: “His gambling addiction escalated, he had remortgaged his property, lost his car, but, unable to cover his debts to family and friends, he used the opportunity to transfer the money to his own account to pay for slot machines and roulette.”
A statement from the PPCA read to the court said staff had needed counselling and “the people of Portsmouth had lost a chunk of NHS money which could have been used to benefit their care”.
Mr Lawson said that negotiations with the gambling companies had led to them refunding the remaining £900,004 of the stolen money, meaning the PPCA should be refunded all of the funds taken by Chhapia, who had a previous conviction for drink-driving.
Stan Reiz QC, defending, said: “He is a hard-working, honest and talented doctor who has behaved in manner which is wholly out of character for him, this is not a fall from grace but a product of a perfect storm.
“He suffered from financial difficulties which was compounded by the Covid pandemic and this was augmented by his gambling disorder, which was not diagnosed at the time but is now.”
He added: “He is deeply remorseful for the pain he has caused and takes full responsibility for his wrongdoing.
“He has embarrassed the company he built from the ground up and himself for six weeks of madness.
“He was under the delusional impression that he would win, fed by his addiction he felt he was one win away.
“The situation he found himself in was desperate, the only way he could see to repay the money was to gamble more.”
Mr Reiz said Chhapia had approached the gambling firms himself and arranged for them to repay the money by saying it had been the proceeds of crime.
He said that Chhapia, who has twice caught Covid, had continued to work in A&E following his arrest and said: “During the second wave of the pandemic he was working in a hospital on the Isle of Wight and his conduct was described by some of his colleagues as excellent.”