Scotland’s former health secretary described an ex-SNP MP’s behavior in a Scottish independence campaign group as “criminal”, in a court hearing.
Natalie McGarry, 40, who represented Glasgow East, is accused of embezzling more than £25,000 from two Scottish independence campaign groups, including Women For Independence (WFI).
She appeared in Glasgow Sheriff Court accused of misappropriating £21,000 between April 26 2013 to November 30 2015 while she was treasurer of WFI.
It is alleged McGarry transferred cash made from fundraising events into her own personal accounts and failed to send on donations intended for Perth and Kinross foodbank and the charity Positive Prisons Positive Futures.
A second charge she faces is allegedly embezzling £4,661 between April 9 2014 and August 10 2015.
McGarry’s lawyer, Allan Macleod, said she denies the two embezzlement charges against her.
Jeane Freeman, who co-founded WFI in 2012 to give women a voice in the independence debate and who was one of the group’s main organisers, was called to give evidence.
In a court hearing on Wednesday, she described McGarry’s handling of WFI’s finances as “criminal”.
The ex-SNP MSP for Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley said when they took on the former SNP MP as the group’s treasurer in 2013, WFI had “no formal structure” and financial reports were given verbally.
But after the Scottish Independence referendum in 2014, Ms Freeman said the group wanted to continue and to host an annual meeting to discuss a future structure, which meant taking a closer look at the accounts.
The court heard it was at this point Ms Freeman and other members of WFI saw there was less money in the group’s account than anticipated.
“We wanted to look at receipts, PayPal statements and other expenditure, for example wages,” she said.
The group was paying two members for their work in the organisation, while the others were there on a voluntary basis.
“We found it very difficult to get that.
“We couldn’t get access to PayPal passwords.”
Ms Freeman said after approaching McGarry about WFI’s financial status, information came through “in bits and pieces, but never the full amount”.
“Initially it was frustrating and annoying,” she added, “but when we saw the WFI bank accounts it began to feel a bit more serious than annoying.”
She added: “I was mindful that this money came from women and men, many who couldn’t afford it, with trust.
“We had to get to the bottom of it because otherwise it was dishonest.”
Towards the end of 2014, Ms Freeman and other members of WFI suggested McGarry pass on her finance responsibilities to Elizabeth Young, a trained chartered accountant who had offered to take up the role.
This was partly down to Ms McGarry being a candidate in the 2015 UK Government elections, and therefore having less time to dedicate to WFI, but also over concern for the group’s finances, the court heard.
But Ms Freeman said this was not accepted.
The court then saw a series of email exchanges between May and September 2015 from Ms Freeman and other WFI member Carolyn Leckie pressing McGarry about providing “key information” on the group’s finances.
In response to one of their emails in August 2015, McGarry said she would get the information to them by the next day, explaining sorting the finances was “more work than I thought”.
Ms Freeman told the court that following this email, McGarry dropped off documents in a bag on her front doorstep while she was inside without saying hello.
When prosecutor Alastair Mitchell asked her about the interaction, Ms Freeman said she thought McGarry’s behavior was “strange”.
“We had been working together since the end of 2012 at least, and this was 2015,” she said.
“We had all worked very close together through the campaign, we had been to each other’s houses, we had eaten each other’s food.
“I found it strange that any of the group of women would dump something on my doorstep and run away.”
She said the information given that day still failed to provide passwords and crucial bank statements.
In another email it was revealed McGarry transferred a total sum of £6,436.21 on September 2 2015 to the WFI account from her own, to which Ms Freeman said: “I had no knowledge that any money from WFI was in anyone’s account.”
The court heard at this point Ms Young looked at the accounts based on the information that WFI had managed to obtain from McGarry and said there was a gap between income and expenditure of “about £10,000, which grew, and that was a matter of very serious concern”.
Ms Freeman said after having Ms Young’s assumptions confirmed by a private chartered accountant about the missing cash, she sought legal advice.
“At that point we could go no further with this.
“Carolyn, Elizabeth and I took the view that we had to hand everything that we to Police Scotland.”
The trial, overseen by Sheriff Tom Hughes, continues on Thursday.
George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.