Published: 14:15, 13 October 2017
A dishonest lettings manager who stole thousands of pounds collected from tenants has been jailed for a year and eight months.
Gambling addict Lee Grace was originally accused of squirrelling away more than £78,000, while he claimed it was around £16,000.
A judge found the figure was about £45,000.
The 42-year-old, formerly of Allsworth Close, Newington, near Sittingbourne, committed the fraud between October 26 2014 and February 8 last year while working for Kings Hill Properties estate agents in Kings Hill, West Malling.
Grace, who had just finished a prison sentence for similar matters, admitted fraud and transferring criminal property, but disputed the amount involved.
A judge heard evidence over several days at Maidstone Crown Court with the firm’s managing director Tony Petty called as a witness.
Grace started work at the estate agents in late 2014 and was responsible for collecting cash payments mainly from deposits and rental fees.
In February last year Mr Petty received a complaint from a landlord that his rent had not been paid.
It was then discovered Grace had been taking money and reconciling accounts with cheques from other tenants.
The number of tenants affected by the dishonesty was originally thought to be 44. The estate agents covered the losses so that no tenants were out of pocket.
Tenants, mostly in the Kings Hill area but also in Maidstone, Leybourne and West Malling, gave statements confirming they had handed over cash to Grace and signed a receipt for payment.
A couple living in Russett Way, Kings Hill, paid a total of £10,153 in cash to Grace in 2015 but KHP’s accounts showed nothing had been deposited against them.
Another couple, who lived in Chestnut Close, Kings Hill, in June last year went to the offices to give notice of leaving, but there was no record of them being registered at the property.
The couple had paid Grace a holding fee of £550 and £3,140 rent in advance.
The court heard a check on Grace’s bank statements revealed many payments to betting company Gala Coral Group.
He opened an account with Gala Coral in May 2015 and just under £60,000 was deposited into it up to February last year.
A suggestion by Grace that cash was being siphoned off by KHP to evade corporation tax was rejected “one hundred per cent” by Judge Philip St John-Stevens.
He said Grace was “a thoroughly dishonest individual” in a downward spiral of gambling.
Speaking after sentencing, Detective Constable Craig Malthouse said: "Grace has abused the good faith and trust shown in him by his employer in the worst possible way.
"Tenants also trusted him, paying him significant sums of money to secure a new home, or ensure their monthly rental fees had been received on time.
"They had no idea that instead Grace would steal this money, in order to fund a lifestyle which included spending tens of thousands of pounds on a gambling habit.
"Grace didn’t stumble into criminality by chance.
"He is a repeat offender and took this job knowing fully that it would give him the opportunity to steal and defraud.
"A custodial sentence is therefore entirely appropriate."