A MOTHER stole £47,000 from a Bury firm while under police investigation for a separate case of fraud, a court has heard.

Natalie Johnston, aged 39, made 51 separate transactions from Tottington Motor Company's business account into her own personal bank account over a seven-month period.

She claimed she stole the money to buy quality time with her son before she was jailed for another theft of £122,00 from a company in Altrincham.

The case came before Manchester Minshull Street Crown Court today.

Johnston, of Waverley Road, Swinton, has pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit fraud by abuse of her position.

The court heard how the financial loss to the business left the managing director under serious stress, and faced with having to make members of his staff redundant.

Johnston made the first bank transfer to her personal account just four months after securing employment as a bookkeeper at the company in June 2017.

Nigel Booth, prosecuting, said: "Natalie Johnston had trusted access to the company accounting system SAGE.

"She sent unauthorised bank transfers from the company's account to a bank account that she had set up with Santander."

The fraud was discovered by the firm's managing director Jason Mawdsley after he noticed a discrepancy between three invoices that had been received for three training courses and four payments that had been made.

Mr Mawdsley asked the bank to run checks on the payments which revealed that 51 transfers totalling £46,851.43 had been made directly into Johnston's personal account.

The prosecution said: "The company sent a letter to the defendant and her reply read "I fully expect you to call the police. I'm truly sorry. I'm just ill, not something I expect anyone to understand. I'm truly ashamed."

Mr Mawdsley told the police last May: "The fraud has had an impact on the business. We are currently looking at making people redundant due the financial loss.

"I have experienced stress, wondering why did I not notice it earlier. I have been trying to piece everything together."

The prosecution said there were admissions by the defendant when she was interviewed by police.

Johnston's defence of the fraud was that it meant she could "treat her son" who she believed would be taken away from her "when she was convicted" for a separate offence — namely, stealing £122,265.35 from an Altrincham-based property and development firm called Fortis Group.

"She was shown transactions and acknowledged that she had transferred the money into her own account", the court heard.

"She said the reason for committing the fraud was to spend more time with her son because she believed he would be taken away by her husband when she was convicted.

"She spent the money on trips to the Lake District, Rome, Ireland. She bought birthday gifts, took her son out and generally treated him.

"She handed in her sick note towards the end of April, all the time being aware that she was bound to be found out."

Johnston appeared at Minshull Street Crown Court alongside Tanya Drinkwater, aged 35, who was sentenced for a single count of fraud committed while employed at Fortis Group.

Drinkwater, of Sparkford Avenue, Manchester, who was the head of accounts at the time, pleaded guilty to the charge.

The women were accused of transferring money from Fortis accounts into a number of bank accounts in their own names, though it could not be proved that they were conspiring with each other.

The prosecution said: "The modus operandi was for the supplier bank details on the account system to be changed so it would look as though, for instance on a cursory look at the list of transactions, that money was being put to, for instance British Gas, but in fact the account details were changed so they were those of one or other of the defendants' personal bank accounts."

In actual fact, a total of £16,516.21 went into Drinkwater's account between December 2015 and December 2016, and £122,265.35 went into any one of six accounts belonging to accounts assistant Johnston, between September 2015 and February 2017.

The company's suspicions were aroused. On December 23, Drinkwater emailed Fortis to say "I know what I have done is majorly wrong. I'm sincerely sorry. My husband left me in a huge amount of debt, I was completely desperate."

The court heard that she transferred £5,260 back to the company after being dismissed.

Sentencing Drinkwater, Judge Angela Nield said: "You are to all intents and purposes an individual of previous good character.

"This is an offence which I accept is out of character. Nevertheless it is a serious matter. This was a fraud committed when you were in a position of significant responsibility as a manager dealing with the accounts and considerable freedom to move that money about.

"It was expected that you would do so appropriately and properly but you breached that significant level of trust and diverted the large amount of money into your own account. I can see it was not a sophisticated offence though efforts were made to conceal it.

"While fraud is often thought to be a victimless crime, it never is. Someone ultimately does suffer.

"I have read about the factors from your past which have impacted upon you. Little service would be done by sending you to an immediate custodial sentence.

"Taking all the circumstances into account I'm minded to suspend your sentence."

Drinkwater received a suspended 12-month prison sentence and told she must not commit any offences in the UK in the next 18 months.

She was also given a rehabilitation activity requirement of 35 days, given an activities requirement, and 150 hours of unpaid community work.

Johnston is due to be sentenced on Friday, April 26.