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Danish welfare agency wide open for fraudster
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Danish welfare agency wide open for fraudster

| Text: Marie Preisler, photo: Siphiwe Sibeko, Reuters

Should an employee get a lesser sentence if it is easy to steal from the employer? This issue is currently being debated in the criminal case brought against Danish Britta Nielsen, who stole more than 100 million kroner (over €13m) from her employer, the Danish National Board of Social Services. The money had been allocated to disadvantaged citizens.

The Danish YMCA, the Danish Cystic Fibrosis Association and the Danish Deaf Association. These are a few of the organisations for socially disadvantaged people and people with handicaps that were allocated funds from the National Board of Social Services (Socialstyrelsen), only for the money to end up in the pockets of an employee – Britta Nielsen.

She has spent more than 40 years at Socialstyrelsen, in charge of paying out support to projects helping socially disadvantaged people. In 2016 she received the Queen’s Medal for 40 years of faithful service. Two years later it turned out her service was not all that faithful. An audit revealed that since 1993 she had moved more than 100 million Danish kroner from social projects into her own account. 

She spent the money on gold, show-jumping horses and a luxury villa in South Africa, before the fraud was discovered by Socialstyrelsen in September 2018. She fled the country, but was apprehended and agreed to be extradited to Denmark. She has since partly admitted being guilty of abuse of power and fraud.

Leaders without responsibility

Her case is currently being heard in court, where she has explained for the first time why she embezzled the money. Central to her explanation is that it was easy to steal money from her workplace, and that both her colleagues and management knew this was the case. 

“It was a standing joke that you could easily add your own account number and then be off to the Bahamas,” Britta Nielsen told the court. 

The Ministry for Children and Social Affairs, which in charge of Socialstyrelsen, has launched two external inquiries into what happened, and how it could happen. One has identified a range of weaknesses in Socialstyrelsen's security systems, including the fact that someone like Britta Nielsen both paid out money and controlled project accounts.  

The other inquiry has concluded that no top managers at the welfare agency or at the Ministry can be made professionally responsible for the lack of safety procedures. The reason: there is not sufficient documentation for the part of the fraud that took place before 2015. After 2015, Socialstyrelsen has been responsible for allocating funds to social projects. Documentation shows that there has been no professional misconduct on the part of the management that has been responsible for handling the allocation of funds. Britta Nielsen’s bosses cannot be held responsible, according to Kammeradvokaten, the preferred legal adviser to the Danish government, who has carried out the inquiry. 

People will get their money 

The case made the then Minister for Children and Social Affairs Mai Mercado (Conservatives) announce a “spring clean” and major changes to how those kinds of payments were made – including making the ministry responsible for controlling them and the establishment of a new auditing unit. She called the case “embarrassing” and promised that no recipient of funds from Socialstyrelsen would be left out of pocket. Anyone with a genuine claim to money from the agency will get their money.

Britta Nielsen has told the court several times that she would have liked to stop her fraud, but that it became an addiction and that she therefore wished Socialstyrelsen had introduced safety procedures that would make her kind of fraud impossible:

“I felt really bad taking this money,” she has told the court.  

Before the court case began, her lawyer Nima Nabipour argued that Britta Nielsen’s punishment should be less severe than in other, similar cases of fraud – because the controls in the workplace were too weak, making it easy to commit fraud.

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