A council clerk’s £160k scam began after home extension uncovered a Roman road and the cost of the renovation works ballooned.
Joanne Wills, 47, was said by her barrister to have found herself in a financial hole – and kept digging.
The deputy parish clerk spent more than a decade skimming off funds from Towersey and then Chinnor parish councils by falsifying invoices. She also transferred funds between the two in order to cover her tracks.
Peter du Feu, defending, said the stolen funds was not funding ‘cars’ or ‘holidays’. The family bought a two-bed bungalow in 2007, then began a £40,000 extension project to create a third bedroom.
“They kept digging and found the Roman road,” he said. The building works had to stop.
The family became financially responsible for preserving the historic monument. They spent ‘thousands and thousand of pounds’ and the £40,000 project ballooned to £150,000.
When the financial crash happened in late 2000s, the ‘half-destroyed’ house was unsaleable.
Mr du Feu said: “What did the proud matriarchal figure of the family do? She covered for it. She kept the train on the track.” Her husband lost his job, although subsequently retrained. “She was too proud to tell her husband [about the fraud], too proud even to go to her parents, who could have helped.”
The house was later sold and the family’s debts paid, although no attempt was made to repay the councils.
Wills was employed at Towersey Parish Council for 17 years and at Chinnor for 15 years, Oxford Crown Court heard. She was a deputy clerk and, at Towersey, the responsible financial officer.
The frauds came to light during the pandemic. The chief clerk at Chinnor Parish Council, Elizabeth Folley, went into the empty office to do some work. Prosecutor Julian Lynch said: “As she was doing so she came across an invoice which raised some suspicions for her because there were handwritten account details on the side of the invoices.”
She rang the tree services business on one of the invoices, which had no record of the payment. The handwritten bank account details led Ms Folley back to Wills.
Detective work uncovered that more than £135,000 was taken from Towersey and £26,832 from Chinnor – the equivalent of more than £1,000 a month.
She also transferred more than £20,600 from Chinnor to Towersey parish council in order to cover up her dishonesty.
Cllr Mark Davis, chairman of Towersey parish council, said in a victim personal statement read to the court by the prosecutor: “We have paid dearly for Joanne Wills’ greed.”
He described the decade-long fraud as a ‘cynical, heartless, orchestrated assault’ on the council’s finances. The councillors felt ‘betrayed in the most profound sense. We believed Joanne to be our friend and colleague, but she was responsible for broken promises and empty coffers’.
Newcomers to the village had wondered why the parish council never seemed to have any money, he said. The council had been unable to upgrade the cricket ground or the playing field car park.
Wills, of Crowell Hill, Chinnor, pleaded guilty at the magistrates’ court to four counts of fraud by false representation.
Jailing her for four years, Recorder John Hardy QC said: “You were regarded, and I quote, as a ‘pillar of the community’. You turned out to be the very opposite.”
Mitigating, Peter du Feu said his client’s offending had had a significant impact on the mother-of-two’s own family. Wills had also been the victim of online ‘trolls’ since the offending had come to light.
Mr du Feu said her client ‘would like to be given the chance to prove herself by raising money to pay it back in full’. However, Recorder Hardy refused to defer sentence for any compensation to be paid saying such a course could be criticised for looking as thought he was ‘buying her way out of trouble’.
This story was written by Tom Seaward. He joined the team in 2021 as Oxfordshire's court and crime reporter.
To get in touch with him email: Tom.Seaward@newsquest.co.uk
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