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UK: Agency Worker Who Blew £18k On Calls To Nigeria On Work Phone Spared Jail

A Nigerian civil service agency worker who blew £18,000 on calls to a church in Nigeria using a Cabinet Office phone has been spared jail.

Alessandra Akiwowo made over 1,100 calls during and after her time as a contract staff in the Race Disparity Unit, where she worked twice between 2020 and 2021, contributing to a race report setup in the wake of Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests.

The 43-year-old from Romford, who now lives in Ipswich, was employed at the Civil Service through recruitment agency, working there from August 2020 to March 2021 and June 2021 to September 2021. On request, she was given an iPhone SE and laptop, along with a policy telling her to limit personal calls and not to call abroad, Snaresbrook Crown Court heard during her trial.

Akiwowo’s denials were dismantled in court, the judge told her she ignored the policy, and continued making calls between her time in employment, and for nine months after she left the department. Prosecutor Ryan Evans said she ‘abused’ the usage terms by making a ‘substantial’ number of calls, running the total bill for the taxpayer to a staggering £18,529.46.

After the Cabinet Office noticed the high charges in June 2022, nearly a year after her contract ended, civil servants cancelled the SIM and provided police with the call logs. It showed the 661 calls during her period of work, plus another 535 calls after she had left the role. Most of those calls were to a church in Nigeria and the caller location could be traced to Akiwowo’s address, the court heard.

Under questioning Akiwowo accepted making ‘a few’ international calls, but denied the level that was being alleged. She also denied keeping the phone, claiming it was couriered back to the department, but she was not given a receipt.

Akiwowo was charged with fraud by abuse of position, and she eventually pleaded guilty at her pre-trial and preparation hearing. Mr Evans said the offending was ‘sustained’ as he suggested a starting sentence of 18 months in prison.

Her lawyer Nicholas Jones said his client’s principle mitigation was her good character, as he described the fraud as lacking in sophistication and planning. He said Akiwowo had been grieving after the death of her godmother, which came during the Covid pandemic – ‘a time when some people flourished, and others floundered’, according to Mr Jones.

He also urge the judge to consider Akiwowo’s ‘weak’ financial position having moved down the pay ladder to a £22,000 a year admin role at a local college.

Judge Caroline English said the mobile phone policy ‘explicitly stated’ there should be no international calls, and pointed to email correspondence showing Akiwowo agreed to return the device after she left her job. The judge then broke down the call costs, which were just under £8,900 during employment, over £9,100 after she left, and a further £750 in associated charges.

“Incredibly it was not until June 2022 that these charges were noticed when the phone was still being used, some nine months after your employment and the sim was cancelled,” sighed Judge English.

The judge considered Akiwowo’s bereavement and recognised the calls to the church were probably made for support, but she said the fraud had been an abuse of her position.

Judge English said she was ‘just’ persuaded to spare Akiwowo from a trip in the prison van, electing instead to suspend her 12-month sentence for 18 months. Dishing out punishment, Judge English ordered an electronically monitored curfew from 9pm to 6am for three months, and 120 hours of unpaid work. Akiwowo will also pay £400 in costs.