Page last updated at 08:17 GMT, Thursday, 11 February 2010

Minister intervenes in fraud case

Abdul Rauf
Mr Rauf was released on bail pending sentence in three months time

Scotland's deputy first minister has written a letter of support for a man who could be jailed over benefit fraud.

Nicola Sturgeon asked the court to consider "alternatives to a custodial sentence" in the case of Abdul Rauf.

The 60-year-old, who is a constituent of Ms Sturgeon, defrauded £80,000 from the Department of Work and Pensions.

Labour said she had made an "appalling error of judgement" and should resign. The SNP said her representations on behalf of a constituent were routine.

Glasgow Sheriff Court heard how Rauf admitted failing to declare a property in Newington, Edinburgh, worth £200,000 on his application for income support.

He subsequently received £650 a month in rent while he claimed the benefits between 2001 and 2006.

At the same time he was living in a £400,000 house in Glasgow's Maxwell Park area.

If the facts of the case are as they appear and Nicola Sturgeon made such an appalling error of judgement she must resign
Iain Gray MSP
Scottish Labour leader

When the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) later discovered that he owned the Edinburgh property Rauf said he did not declare it as it had "slipped my mind".

Defence advocate Donald Findlay said his client would be able "to make full restitution to the government department involved" through the sale of one of his two properties.

He also said Rauf was in poor health and produced a letter of support from Nicola Sturgeon.

In the letter, the MSP states: "Mr Rauf has accepted his wrong doing and has experienced the consequences of it through the effect on his health, the distress caused to his family and the impact on his standing in his community."

Ms Sturgeon said he has already paid £27,000 of the outstanding balance to the DWP and will settle the remainder by selling property.

She concludes: "He and his wife are anxious that a custodial sentence may be imposed by the court and of the effect this will have on Mr Rauf's health and the impact on family life.

"I would appeal to the court to take the points raised here into account and consider alternatives to a custodial sentence."

'Judgement lapse'

Sheriff Alan MacKenzie told Rauf that a jail term was "at the forefront" of his mind but said he would defer sentence for three months and released him on bail.

Political opponents, however, have questioned Ms Sturgeon's judgement in becoming involved in the case.

Scottish Labour leader Iain Gray said: "If the facts of the case are as they appear and Nicola Sturgeon made such an appalling error of judgement she must resign.

"Last week she was selling access to raise funds for the SNP. Now she is prepared to give a character reference for a convicted fraudster."

Bill Aitken, Conservative justice spokesman, said: "It is extraordinary to describe a second conviction for fraud as a 'mistake'. Either Ms Sturgeon didn't care about his previous fraud conviction or she didn't check.

"Either would be unbelievable and a grave lapse of judgement.

"Ms Sturgeon trained as a solicitor, is an MSP and the deputy first minister of Scotland. Her judgement in this matter is completely flawed and she has serious questions to answer."

'Beggars belief'

Mike Rumbles, of the Scottish Liberal Democrats, said: "It beggars belief that the deputy first minister of Scotland could think it appropriate to write in support of a convicted fraudster who is now facing another conviction.

"The deputy first minister should clear the air by making a statement to Parliament."

A spokesman for the SNP described Mr Gray's resignation call as "absurd", "beneath contempt" and an "extraordinarily ill-judged attack".

He said: "Nicola Sturgeon represented her constituent entirely properly and appropriately as the local MSP - as all MSPs are obliged to do under the parliamentary code."

In a BBC Scotland interview, the party's Public Health Minister Shona Robison said when Gordon Brown was Chancellor, he also made representations to a court on behalf of a constituent who admitted growing cannabis plants - although the man did not have any previous convictions.

In 1996, Rauf was given a four-year sentence for stealing nearly £60,000 in pension and benefit payments when he was a sub-post master at Tollcross in Edinburgh.

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