A lettings manager who stole some £45,000 from tenants to fund his gambling addiction has been sentenced to a year and eight months in prison.
Shockingly, Lee Grace has been branded by police as a repeat offender, having already committed similar offences at other agencies, and serving time in prison.
Grace went to work at Kings Hill estate agents near West Malling, Kent, with boss Tony Petty totally unaware of his previous form. Police say he took this job knowingly, because it would give him the opportunity to steal and defraud.
When it came to working at, and stealing from, estate agents, Grace had a record as EYE reported last year:
After Grace’s latest sentencing on Friday last week at Maidstone Crown Court, Petty told EYE: “I would never have taken him on had I known of his past.
“I do think agents whose employees have records have a duty to speak out and warn other employers.
“Lee Grace was charming and plausible – and he has cost my firm an enormous amount of money. I also had no idea he had a gambling problem.”
In the latest case, Grace went to work for Kings Hill estate agents towards the end of 2014. Over the following 15 months, he pocketed multiple payments from tenants instead of depositing them in his employer’s bank account.
He disguised his criminal activity by reconciling different accounts with cash and cheque payments from various other tenants.
The fraud was uncovered in February 2016 when the firm received a complaint from a landlord that his rent had not been paid.
Grace was originally accused of taking over £78,000, but he disputed this. He claimed it was around £16,000, but the judge put the figure at £45,000.
While the amount was disputed, Grace – who had just finished his earlier prison sentence – admitted fraud and transferring criminal property.
In February 2016 the firm received a complaint from a landlord that his rent had not been paid, and police were called in.
Police believe the number of tenants affected by the dishonesty was around 44. Kings Hill has covered all the losses so that no tenants were out of pocket.
Tenants gave statements confirming they had handed over cash to Grace and signed a receipt for payment.
One couple paid a total of £10,153 in cash to Grace in 2015 but the firm’s accounts showed nothing had been deposited against them.
Another couple went to the estate agent offices in June last year to give notice of leaving and found there was no record of them ever being registered at the property.
They had paid Grace a holding fee of £550 and £3,140 in rent in advance.
On investigation by police, Grace’s bank statements revealed numerous payments to bookies Gala Coral Group.
He had opened an account with Gala Coral in May 2015 and had deposited almost £60,000 up until February last year.
Judge Philip St John-Stevens totally rejected a suggestion by Grace that Kings Hill was siphoning off cash to evade corporation tax.
He branded Grace a “thoroughly dishonest individual” in a downward spiral of gambling.
Speaking after the sentencing on Friday, 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.”
The Lee Grace case highlights whether estate agent employers and members of the public should have access to the ‘blacklist’ of letting agents due to be published from this autumn.
Currently, it will only be accessible by local and central government officials. It is possible that Grace might not be allowable on to a new list of letting agents, under government plans to license letting agents.
As matters stand, however, there is nothing to stop him working in the lettings industry after release from jail.