THIS is the estate agent who pocked £13,450 of tenants’ rent payments.
Michelle Anne Armstrong worked as an administrative assistant for Dennis Dowen at his branch in Church Street, Seaham, where she handled 90 tenants, with most meeting their bills with cash.
She had denied stealing the cash and was due to defend the allegation in a week-long trial, but changed her plea to guilty on the day it was to start at Durham Crown Court.
Today, the businessman said Armstrong, who was a trusted member of staff after she was recruited in 2007, could have left the firm bankrupt if it had been a smaller, less established company.
Mr Dowen, who runs the 31-year-old business, added: “I feel vindicated on behalf of our customers and for the staff.
“If anything is taken, I’ve got to put that back, so no customers were in debt whatsoever.
“I knew about her personal life and she was a good employee, I can’t say she wasn’t.”
When Mr Dowen, the company’s principal, had wanted to move on to a direct debit system for rents, 48-year-old Armstrong argued “people in Seaham prefer dealing in cash,” but found the opposite when he took charge of the system following her arrest.
As a company regulated by the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors (RICS), any money lost due to staff infidelity has to be reimbursed to landlord owed rent, with the money made up from Mr Dowen’s own resources.
The court heard suspicions had first been raised when £1,315 did not appear in the accounts in 2009. When Armstrong protested her innocence, Mr Dowen challenged his bank over the missing funds,.
Prosecutor Paul Abrahams said matters came to light after she arrived at the office claiming £7,000 of collected rent had been stolen from her car on October 6 last year. Footage from the CCTV showed no such theft.
Bank accounts were then checked and the extent of the shortfall was discovered.
Mr Abrahams said she was challenged and arrested, but gave officers various accounts, changing her story as evidence came to light and at one point said money had gone missing from her desk drawer.
Nigel Hedley, mitigating, said Armstrong, of Chestnut Way, Seaham, had taken the money “from need, not greed, with no hint of lavish lifestyle.”
Mr Dowen said he agreed with the sentence of 18 months in prison, suspended for two years, plus 280 hours community service and a six-month 7.30pm to 7am curfew handed down by Recorder Brian Cox.
A proceeds of crime hearing to claw back money she took will be held in coming months.