Published: 15:16, 31 March 2016
A former Labour MEP faces jail after claiming almost £500,000 in expenses to fund his lavish lifestyle and pay off his wife following their divorce.
Peter Skinner, 56, claimed the maximum staff Parliamentary Assistance Allowance (PAA) over a three-year period while representing the South East of England in the European Parliament.
The funds, adding up to £480,000, were meant for staffing costs.
But the politician used the extra money to fund luxury holidays abroad, buy jewellery and splash out on gourmet meals.
He even used taxpayers' cash to hire snorkel equipment while sunning himself on a Hawaiian honeymoon after handing his ex-wife £10,000.
Skinner claimed he was confused over the rules and blamed a lack of information given to him by the European Parliament.
But a jury of six men and six women at Southwark Crown Court took just over 11 hours to find him guilty of one count of making a false instrument, one count of fraud and one count of false accounting in a combination of unanimous and majority verdicts.
"You have been convicted of extremely serious offences and you will know an immediate prison sentence is almost inevitable," - Mrs Justice Maura McGowan
He was cleared of one count of making a false instrument in relation to a form submitted to the parliament in 2006.
Mrs Justice Maura McGowan adjourned sentence but told Skinner: "You have been convicted of extremely serious offences and you will know no doubt from the knowledge you have of what has happened to your colleagues in a similar situation that an immediate prison sentence is almost inevitable."
Skinner represented the South East of England region as a Labour MEP from 1999 until he was replaced by Anneliese Dodds in 2014.
The charges related to expense claims and allowances between 2004 and 2009.
Prosecutor Jonathan Davies said Skinner falsified documents and gave untrue information in a 'calculated and dishonest' bid to justify the claims for PAA.
"The reason he did that was to stop the European Parliament enquiring into his conduct and his claims and enquiring into the amounts of his allowances that we say he diverted for use elsewhere," he continued.
The allowance is only given to MEPs to cover the cost of their assistants.
"As an MEP Mr Skinner was entitled to be paid for his work, to receive a salary from parliament and also for expenses," Mr Davies explained.
"He could claim - and did claim - €304 (£236) a day 'subsistence'.
"An investigation revealed between 2004 and 2007 Mr Skinner always claimed the maximum amount of permitted PAA.
"He claimed an allowance that was for a specific purpose but he used it for personal expenditure.
"To do this he submitted claim forms submitting this was the amount he was to be charged by his service provider."
The MEP claimed £29,985 in 2005 - £9,401 of which was transferred into his personal bank account.
Skinner then took an extra £9,369.63 the following year.
"£8,000 of that money was transferred into Mr Skinner's personal account - a nice little bonus potentially," said the prosecutor.
Mr Davies said the money twice went into Skinner's personal account before he jetted off to the United States.
"He could claim - and did claim - £236 a day," - prosecutor Jonathan Davies
"On each occasion it (payment) was made shortly before a trip to the US and was spent on hotels, restaurants, shops, clothes and jewellery - improper use, we say, of PAA."
Skinner also made payments to his ex-wife after their divorce long after she had stopped working for him as well as handing cash to other family members.
"He diverted and used the money to make personal payments to his ex-wife following their divorce so that he did not have to foot the cost personally, payments of a personal nature to his father when his mother was ill and he made payments to his own personal bank accounts.
"In 2006 a number of payments were made after divorce to Mr Skinner's ex-wife totalling £10,000," Mr Davies said.
Part of the cash went towards the £1,900 repair of a gearbox on a Land Rover Discovery.
Skinner claimed one of his employees, Karen Forbes, who carried out payroll and administrative duties, invoiced him for €178,379.88 (£122,178) in 2005.
She was in fact working for Tesco for most of that year and only provided part-time bookkeeping services to the MEP.
According to the invoices Mrs Forbes was being paid the maximum £10,420.36 each month but she said she only received £525 a month.
He was cleared of forging Mrs Forbes signature on a regularisation form submitted to the parliament in 2006.
Skinner blamed the lack of information given to him by the European Parliament as part of the reason for his supposed confusion over the rules.
Between 2004 and 2007 Skinner claimed the maximum amount of PAA available which totalled to around £480,000.
"Mr Skinner's true staffing costs were less than the maximum amount of PAA that he claimed from 2004 to 2007," said the prosecutor.
"Mr Skinner had said when he made the claim for that allowance in 2004 that he had entered a service contract with Karen Forbes and that the funds she would charge him for the services that she provided were that amount.
"For all sorts of reasons they did not accord with the parliamentary rules."
One of Skinner's former researchers alerted police after discovering a document showing money had been paid to the MEP's father for work he believed had been done by someone else.
"On each occasion payment was made shortly before a trip to the US and spent on hotels, restaurants, shops, clothes and jewellery," - prosecutor Jonathan Davies
"The document seemed to show that Mr Skinner had engaged his father William Skinner to provide research and a communication strategy for him for a period of one year and for a fee of £5,000 every three months," said Mr Davies.
"The former researcher was unaware of any such work which had been done by Mr Skinner's father - he knew that someone else had done that work."
Skinner made the payments to an account held by his father in the name 'J S Consultancy' which had been written in to replace the name Jim Skinner on a letter confirming the contract.
He also forged his father's signature on a document so he could claim his dad was working for him and send his parents £5,000 every three months - though this was short-lived.
A handwriting expert found the signature on the invoices was not that of Mr Skinner's father.
Three invoices presented to police contained different wordings and different fonts.
Skinner claimed in interview the money in his account was being set aside as a 'redundancy reserve' in order to protect his staff if they were to find themselves suddenly out of a job.
Skinner, of Recreation Avenue, Snodland, Kent, was found guilty of one count of making a false instrument, one count of fraud and one count of false accounting.
He was cleared of a second count of making a false instrument and was bailed ahead of sentence on Friday, April 29.