Former north councillor spared jail after flouting court order over election expenses fraud
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A FORMER North councillor who fiddled his election expenses and then flouted a court order handed down for the offence, has been spared a jail sentence after his lawyer argued it was not in the public interest.
Twenty-two-year-old Alex MacLeod, was elected to the Landward Caithness ward in 2012 on an SNP ticket but two years later admitted falsifying his expenses and conducting his election campaign by fraud.
It emerged he had altered invoices to make it appear he had spent less on the campaign than he actually had. The false invoices were submitted to local authority officials.
MacLeod was given a community payback order with 160 hours unpaid work at court in January 2014 and vowed to carry it out, but last month he appeared at Inverness Sheriff court to admit breaching the order.
Sentence was deferred for background reports and he was warned he could be facing imprisonment.
However MacLeod, whose address was given as Hay Street, Elgin, was offered a second chance when he appeared at Tain Sheriff Court today.
Sheriff Gordon Fleetwood put a fresh community payback order in place with the condition that he complete 200 hours unpaid work within eight months. The order will be reviewed on 18th August to make sure MacLeod is complying with it.
Passing sentence, the sheriff told MacLeod: "Both in the commission of the original offence and in your attitude to the order made, you seem to think the law does not apply to you. It applies to you just as it applies to everyone.
"Please be in no doubt should the report (on 18th August) be anything other than utterly favourable then it will be in the public interest to imprison you."
His defence agent described MacLeod as a "profoundly chastened and humble young man."
The lawyer said: "He is a young man, somewhat immature perhaps, who failed to fully appreciate just how seriously noncompliance with the order would be viewed by the court."
The lawyer said that at the time the original order was imposed, MacLeod’s life had been unsettled but he now had more stability and was in a better situation to undertake unpaid work.
He said: "His plea of guilty to the original crime coincided naturally with his resignation as a local councillor.
"That was a career that he had spent many years, notwithstanding his youth, working towards. It was something that he loved and it is something that was brought to a very abrupt end, through his own failings.
"But having spent so much time and effort working towards this position, he then found himself in the months thereafter at a complete loss as to what he should do with his life and in particular with his professional life.
The lawyer continued: "Being resourceful and hard working, he then put his efforts into an alternative career path and established his own business which was incorporated in September 2013. That is a limited company of which he is the sole director.
"He spent a great amount of time and effort establishing this company and a regrettable consequence of that was that he failed to appropriately prioritise his responsibilities as far as the court order is concerned. It is correct to say that he did not fully appreciate the consequences."
Sheriff Fleetwood interjected at this point: "Which part of ‘alternative to imprisonment’ did he not understand?"
The defence agent added that MacLeod’s personal circumstances were now markedly different. His company was established and he was about to draw a wage from it for the first time.
However,he revealed that press coverage over MacLeod’s 16th April appearance had affected his business and he had lost out on £70,000 funding.
But he said he had successfully secured two marketing contracts in January and April this year and on the back of those intended to employ an administrative assistant and a designer.
"Should my client be imprisoned, that would be lost to him," he said.
He told the court that MacLeod’s arrest and detention overnight on the breach of order charge had been a chastening experience for him.
Appealing to the sheriff for a non-custodial penalty, he said: "Custody would not reflect the public interest when he has much to give. The court should, having revoked the original order, make a fresh order and mark its displeasure by increasing the number of hours of unpaid work."
Speaking after the court case, MacLeod said: "I feel a sense of deep regret but determination to put this behind me once and for all and to move on with my life.
"These are serious matters and I am most certainly going to take them seriously."
A former Tain Royal Academy pupil, MacLeod worked for former First Minister Alex Salmond and in 2010 he was appointed as a parliamentary assistant to SNP MSP Rob Gibson. He was Mr Gibson’s campaign manager in the 2011 election when he won the Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross seat.
Following his original 2012 conviction, he resigned from the SNP and was banned from pursuing a legal career – he had been studying law at Edinburgh University.
His election fraud was uncovered as a result of an anonymous tip-off. An investigation revealed that he had spent £3796.28 but claimed only to have spent £1162.
His previous defence agent Duncan Henderson called it a "fairly amateurish scheme which police had no difficulty in detecting."