Crooked Dr Rumi Chhapia, an appointed director of the Portsmouth Primary Care Alliance Limited, was today locked up for three years and four months at Portsmouth Crown Court.
The GP siphoned £1,133,704.50 from the accounts of the group - made up of 16 GP surgeries which provide out-of-hours care in Portsmouth - between August 20 and September 30 last year into his own bank account over 65 transfers.
The 45-year-old, of Lennox Road North, Southsea, had been left in charge of the company’s finances by a fellow director, who had been signed off sick - before the ‘greedy’ doctor exploited the opportunity to pocket the cash to pay for his gambling addiction in just 41 days.
Judge Keith Cutler CBE told Chhapia: ‘You were dishonest and were seduced by your addiction to gambling.
‘Over six weeks there were 65 separate occasions you transferred money into your own account. You knew you should not be doing it.
‘When questioned in the middle of it all you fobbed off your colleagues about bank problems but still continued to take money with the last withdrawal on September 28.’
The judge went on to say the impact on the organisation was ‘significant’ and was ‘profound’ which had caused GP practices to ‘lose confidence’ in it.
Staff at the group were also left needing counselling amid the fallout and over concerns about whether they would be paid. ‘The confidence was shaken to the core,’ judge Cutler said.
The judge said Chhapia, dressed in a grey suit and tie, had ‘exceptional references’ before adding: ‘You were a popular and respected doctor with many people testifying of your professional skills.’
The court heard Chhapia volunteered taking over financial control of the group from director Mark Stubbings who kept a watching brief of the accounts despite his absence - with him noticing £1m in the account had reduced by £600,000.
With payments being transferred to the defendant’s account, Chhapia was summoned to a meeting where he told directors: ‘It’s fraud. All my accounts have been hacked. All the money will be returned. Don’t panic.’
The doctor went on to claim on September 11 he was a victim of cyber crime.
Chhapia continued to transfer large sums to his account even after ‘taking full responsibility for his actions’ prosecutor Matthew Lawson said.
On September 28 he made full admissions to the group in which he was ‘close to tears’ and admitted he was in ‘financial trouble’ and ‘tried to repay through online gambling’.
In total Chhapia, a father of one, lost £2.5m gambling but won back £1.2m.
He has now paid back £238,000 with his defence barrister Stan Reiz QC saying all the money would be paid back eventually.
‘He was desperate and the only way he could see to repay all the money was to gamble more,’ Mr Reiz said.
Dr Mark Swindells from Portsmouth Primary Care Alliance Limited said the ‘people of Portsmouth have lost a sizeable chunk of NHS money’ whilst causing the organisation 'reputational damage having previously been held in high regard’.
‘It caused cash flow problems and raised anxiety from staff that payments could be delayed,’ he added. ‘The margins have been tight.’
Chhapia pleaded guilty to one count of fraud by abuse of position at a previous hearing.
The court heard that £903,704.50 remained outstanding to the Portsmouth Primary Care Alliance Limited which the online gambling firms have offered to pay back.
Chhapia, formerly of good character with one driving offence to his name, previously worked at the Portsdown Group Practice.
He was not disqualified from being a director.
PC Stephen Webber, who led the investigation, said: ‘Today’s sentence comes after a thorough investigation by Hampshire Constabulary’s Economic Crime Unit, in conjunction with the local NHS Fraud and Security Management Service, hosted by Hampshire, Southampton and Isle of Wight Clinical Commissioning Group.
‘While Chhapia initially claimed he had been the victim of hacking, he soon realised he had no choice but to admit what he had done, which was defraud more than £1m out of an organisation that invests money into developing services and equipment so that GP practices can deliver good quality care to the communities that they serve.
‘Crimes such as this one are simply unacceptable and I hope this result sends a message to those who commit fraud that their actions won't go unnoticed and we will investigate.’
Lisa Garcia, CPS Wessex Senior Crown Prosecutor, said: ‘Dr Chhapia exploited his position of trust to take an extraordinary amount of money, which diverted funds that would have otherwise been invested into providing better services, equipment and care to people across the Portsmouth area.
‘The overwhelming financial evidence meant that Dr Chhapia had no choice but to admit the fraud to his work colleagues and to the police. He pleaded guilty at the earliest opportunity and he will now face the consequences of his actions by serving the custodial sentence imposed.’