• Paula Vasco-Knight accused of two charges of fraud when she was chief executive of Torbay and South Devon Healthcare Foundation Trust
  • Court hears she commissioned her husband to produce a newsletter and a leadership document that was never submitted to the NHS
  • Ms Vasco-Knight failed to declare interest in her husband’s company, prosecution says

Former trust chief executive Paula Vasco-Knight fraudulently paid her husband more than £20,000 from her budget, a court was told today.

She is charged with two counts of fraud between 2012 and 2013, when she was in charge of Torbay and South Devon Healthcare Foundation Trust. Ms Vasco-Knight has pleaded not guilty to the charges.

Paula Vasco-Knight

Paula Vasco-Knight

Paula Vasco-Knight was Torbay and South Devon Healthcare chief executive from 2008 to 2014

Ms Vasco-Knight, of Runcorn, Cheshire, was also the national lead for equalities for NHS England from 2012 to 2014, where she had a budget of £200,000.

Exeter Crown Court heard she commissioned her husband, Stephen Vasco-Knight, to produce a £9,000 newsletter as part of her equalities work.

Ms Vasco-Knight is also accused of paying her husband £11,072 of taxpayers’ money to design a 200 page leadership improvement document called Transform.

She allegedly used NHS funds to buy a MacBook Pro with graphic design software in 2012, which she later admitted she never used.

Mr Vasco-Knight denied one charge of fraud. He is a graphic designer and owns a business called Thinking Caps, which is not a limited company.

Habib Naqvi, a senior equalities manager at NHS England, denied two charges of encouraging or assisting Ms Vasco-Knight.

Prosecutor Gareth Evans said Ms Vasco-Knight was legally bound to declare her interest in her husband’s company as part of the NHS’s standing financial instructions, but failed to do so.

The newsletter was commissioned in April 2013 and produced by Thinking Caps that July.

In police interviews, Ms Vasco-Knight said she had no involvement with the newsletter and this was done by Mr Naqvi.

In an email to Mr Naqvi, Ms Vasco-Knight described the contractor for the newsletter as “Steve” and did not mention they were married. In another email, she told a colleague that “my Steve” could do the newsletter but she would “need to be careful”.

Mr Vasco-Knight was secretly copied into emails between NHS staff discussing the newsletter before his company was officially contracted and paid £9,000, it was alleged. Ms Vasco-Knight also sent him an NHS newsletter previously produced by a rival company.

The court heard that in a later email to Mr Naqvi, who was then aware of the relationship, Ms Vasco-Knight wrote: “Thinking Caps is the name Steve produces his graphic design work, hence working via you not me.”

Mr Naqvi told investigators Ms Vasco-Knight had assured him she had declared her interest in Thinking Caps to the NHS.

In December 2012, Ms Vasco-Knight was awarded a £10,000 bursary for leadership development, the court heard.

In November 2013, her husband submitted a second invoice to the NHS for £11,072, from the bursary funds, to produce Transform.

The invoice was initially sent to Ms Vasco-Knight, who forwarded it to Mr Naqvi.

Mr Naqvi was in the process of submitting three other invoices for work from separate companies at that time. “He was told by Paula Vasco-Knight to hold back on submitting those three invoices because there was another invoice on its way,” Mr Evans said. “That invoice was the £11,072 from Thinking Caps. The only reason for that was to try to hide that invoice, to camouflage it.”

A few weeks later, Ms Vasco-Knight began chasing payment for the invoice and was informed that it had not been authourised. She allegedly asked another manager to approve it but he did not do so.

Records show Ms Vasco-Knight’s authorising number was used to approve the payment, Mr Evans said.

After the payment was approved, Ms Vasco-Knight asked the NHS finance department if it could be paid as a cheque. Mr Vasco-Knight later provided his banking details.

Ms Vaco-Knight said Transform was completed by her husband under her instruction and she did not follow standing financial instructions as it was paid for with her bursary money.

Mr Evans told the jury: “She said her actions at times were probably not best practice but she did what she did because she wanted to ensure value for money.”

Mr Vasco-Knight insisted he had completed Transform in November 2013.

Mr Evans said the document was never submitted to the NHS, with the couple showing investigators a “complete sham” as evidence in 2014.

Investigators searched online for passages of text that appeared in Transform, which was invoiced for in November 2013. Pages were taken “virtually verbatim” from a King’s Fund report and another document published in 2014, the court heard.

Mr Naqvi denied that he had asked Thinking Caps to carry out the work and had been informed that the company had been selected by Ms Vasco-Knight. He said he had no knowledge of the production of the document.

The trial is expected to last for two weeks.