A former Legal Services Manager at a borough council has been struck off and ordered to pay £22,000 over misleading invoices for payment submitted to the local authority by a business run by her husband.
The specific allegations against Omolarami Akindij, the respondent, before a hearing of the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal (SDT) on 15 February 2022 were that, whilst in practice at Corby Borough Council:
1,1 Between 22 November 2018 and 28 November 2018, she pursued a course of conduct whereby she submitted, or caused to be submitted, two invoices for payment to Corby’s accounts department, in respect of Alfa Topco Limited (her husband’s business), which contained information that she knew, or ought to have known, was misleading and in doing so breached Principles 2 and 6 of the SRA Principles 2011.
1.2 On 6 December 2018, during an interview with her line manager and the Head of Internal Affairs and Counter-Fraud at Cambridgeshire County Council, regarding an allegation of fraud made against her, the respondent provided information that was untrue and in doing so breached Principles 2 and 6 of the SRA Principles 2011.
Dishonesty was alleged as an aggravating feature of the conduct alleged but was not an essential ingredient required to prove the allegations, the SDT noted.
Ms Akindiji had commenced the role of Legal Services Manager at Corby in August 2018, having previously been employed since March that year on a temporary contract.
On 3 January 2019, her line manager made a report to the Solicitors Regulation Authority that the respondent had set up Alfa Topco on the council’s creditor system and had attempted to arrange payments to that company for services that Corby had not received.
In her Answer, Ms Akindiji said she had not been asked any questions or asked to make any declarations and she believed she had followed all the correct protocols.
She also set out her reasons for the lie she had admitted, which included a number of details of her personal circumstances and a series of allegations of inappropriate behaviour by another person. The respondent made reference to having been separated from her husband and argued that this was another reason why there was not a conflict of interest.
Ms Akindiji also stated that the matter had been reported to the Police, who “found that I have not done anything wrong.”
In relation to Allegation 1.1 the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal (SDT) said it was satisfied on the balance of probabilities that the respondent had submitted two invoices – for £1,550 plus VAT – for payment from Alfa Topco.
It said: “The invoices variously described the work as ‘Legal Consultancy’ and ‘providing legal advice/drafting in relation to property matters’. There was no evidence that Alfa Topco had provided any such services and so the invoices were wholly misleading.
“In reality, Alfa Topco appeared to be involved in recruitment, including attempting to encourage candidates to join the council through Alfa Topco even though they were already signed up with other agencies. These attempts were unsuccessful and no candidates were placed with the council through Alfa Topco. The Tribunal was therefore satisfied on the balance of probabilities that the invoices were misleading.”
The Tribunal then considered whether Ms Akindiji knew or ought to have known they were misleading. The Tribunal considered the internal interview on 6 December 2018 in which the respondent had stated as follows:
“As a legal professional, did you not think you should have declared this?
As I have just said, this was my first permanent role and I did not know that I needed to declare it. I had tried to ensure an arm’s length approach and was not dealing with my husband directly. I dealt with James Akin.
So if you had any email correspondence with the company, who would that have been with?
James Akin. I have not corresponded via my husband.”
Ms Akindiji subsequently admitted that James Akin and her husband were one and the same person.
The SDT said: “It was clear therefore that what the respondent had stated in the interview was false. The respondent had also stated that her husband was one of three directors, when the evidence from Companies House was that he was the sole director. The respondent would not have made false statements in that interview unless she knew that the invoices had been misleading and was trying to conceal the true nature of her connection to Alfa Topco. The respondent had also amended the invoices on two occasions to try to justify them, something that would not have been necessary had she not known them to be misleading in the first place.”
The Tribunal noted the respondent’s comments claiming she had received inadequate training when she joined the council and rejected them on the basis that they were contradicted by the evidence.
The SDT decided to attach very little weight to Ms Akindiji’s Answer or her witness statement as she had not allowed that evidence to be tested in cross-examination (the respondent had referred to health issues in relation to her non-attendance at the SDT hearing but had not provided any medical evidence).
The Tribunal, which also noted that the evidence of the witnesses from the council was both unchallenged and consistent, found the factual basis of Allegation 1.1 proved on the balance of probabilities. It went on to find breaches of both Principle 2 and Principle 6.
The SDT acknowledged that Ms Akindiji was of good character and said it took that fully into account. “Notwithstanding the respondent’s good character, the Tribunal was satisfied on the balance of probabilities that her actions would be considered dishonest by the standards of ordinary decent people. The Tribunal therefore found the allegation of dishonesty proved.”
In relation to allegation 1.2, the SRA’s case was that Ms Akindiji told seven lies during the interview on 6 December 2018, and that by telling lies during an investigation, Ms Akindiji had failed to act with integrity.
The SDT went through each of the seven statements and was satisfied on the balance of probabilities that what the respondent had stated was untrue. It again found that breaches of Principles 2 and 6 were proved on the balance of probabilities.
The SDT added: “The Tribunal noted that the events that were the subject of the interview had all taken place very recently, a matter of days and weeks previously. This was not, therefore, a case of forgetfulness or genuine mistake due to the passage of time. The respondent had been directly involved in all of these matters and therefore had full knowledge of the truth of the situation.
“It therefore followed that the respondent was aware that what she was telling the investigator was repeatedly untrue. The respondent had accepted that she had told ‘lies’ though she only specified those in relation to Person D. It was clear from the evidence, however, that she knew that all the matters particularised in Allegation 1.2 were false. The respondent had referred to health issues in her Answer and witness statement but had provided no medical evidence of those or that would show that the health issues caused her to make false statements.”
When considering what sanction to apply, the SDT said it considered the case to involve a substantial breach of trust.
“By submitting the two invoices for payment when the person who would receive payment was not properly registered with the council, due to the respondent failing to declare an interest, risked reputational damage to the council,” it said.
“The respondent’s actions were pre-meditated and repeated in that more than one invoice was submitted for payment. The respondent’s lies about the situation were prolonged. Although the misconduct was not particularly sophisticated, it was nevertheless planned.”
The SDT said the motivation for the misconduct was clearly financial gain on the part of Alfa Topco, the sole director of which was the respondent’s husband.
The reputation of the profession had been seriously undermined by the respondent’s conduct, the Tribunal found.
“The respondent was an experienced solicitor in a position of significant responsibility and within a short period of time after joining the council she had gone against all that she would have been taught by way of training.”
It added that the misconduct was aggravated by the fact that when challenged Ms Akindiji offered multiple contradictory explanations that included blaming her line manager, lack of systems, lack of knowledge and poor health.
The Tribunal rejected all of those explanations as none of them were supported by any evidence. It also found that the respondent had demonstrated no insight into her conduct and insofar as there were admissions made in her correspondence with the SRA, these contained contradictions.
These matters had been aggravated by the respondent’s dishonesty, the SDT added.
It concluded that the misconduct was so serious that a reprimand, fine or restriction order would not be a sufficient sanction to protect the public or the reputation of the profession from future harm by the respondent.
The misconduct was at the highest level and the only appropriate sanction was a strike-off, the SDT concluded.