A celebrity chef has branded it an ‘absolute joke’ that a couple walked free after siphoning £150,000 out of his luxury restaurant and using it for luxury holidays.
Stephen Terry, who was Gordon Ramsay’s best man, said his Hardwick restaurant survived ‘by the skin of its teeth’ after Nicola Nightingale stole thousands of pounds while she worked there.
Mother-of-five Nicola Nightingale, 48, and her husband Simon Nightingale, 50, fleeced the Great British Menu chef while working at his well-known restaurant in Abergavenny, Wales.
They were given two-year suspended sentences at Cardiff Crown Court on Monday.
Today Mr Terry slammed the pair’s sentences, saying it was a ‘travesty’ that the pair were spared prison because the judge took into account the ‘lasting negative impact’ a jail term would have on their children.
Nicola Nightingale, 48, and Simon Nightingale, 50, pictured at Disney World
Gordon Ramsay with TV chef Stephen Terry (right), who was fleeced out of £150,000
Judge Clarke said sending both defendants to prison would have had a ‘lasting, negative impact on them [the children] and upon their development’.
Slamming their sentences today, Mr Terry said: ‘It’s a a sham, a complete joke. What message does this send out about white collar crime?’
‘It says white collar crime pays – just make sure you’ve got kids.
‘We heard what the impact of custody might have been on their children but what about our family?’
He continued: ‘I am disappointed there was no custodial sentence for what they have put myself through. For someone to come and do that I think she practically got away with it.
‘They had holiday we could have only dreamed of and all of a sudden you find out you’re paying for it.
‘For them to result in getting a suspended sentence is a travesty.’
Mr Terry and his wife Joanna Terry said consideration was paid to the impact on the defendants’ family if they were sent to prison – but an equal amount of consideration had not been paid to their family.
Mrs Terry said: ‘The court has not put into anything about our what our children have gone through and what they continue to go through and that’s wrong.’
Mr Terry, who trained under Marco Pierre White, opened the award-winning gastropub in 2005 and it has since become known as one of the best restaurants in the country.
Mrs Nightingale, who Mr Terry employed as his office administrator between February 2018 and March 2020, had alcoholism and mental health problems and used the money to fund her spending addiction, the court heard.
Simon Nightingale and Pluto. Mr Nightingale was found guilty of swindling a celebrity chef out of £150,000 from the restaurant where his wife worked and using the money to go on luxury holidays
Nicola and Simon Nightingale outside Cardiff Crown Court. The pair both received suspended sentences
Prosecutor Tom Roberts said Mrs Nightingale ‘generated fake invoices from fictitious suppliers’ after she was employed at the country inn.
Over a two-year period, the mother-of-four siphoned almost £47,000 into her husband’s bank account, made direct payments of more than £50,000 to her account, inflated her wages by £6,000 and made additional payments to herself disguised as paid wages of £47,000.
The total stolen from the restaurant was £150,234.63.
It was also discovered that two loans for £40,000 each had been taken out in Mr Terry’s name without his permission.
But they were snared when Mr Terry saw money was missing from his bank account.
Mr Terry looked at the accounts to discover two £40,000 loans had been taken out in his name along with a £10,000 shortfall in the pension pot.
Giving evidence, he previously said: ‘I think it took Nicola about four weeks to start taking money from us from when she started. She didn’t hang about.’
Mother-of-five Nicola Nightingale, 48, (left) walking hand-in-hand with Simon Nightingale (right) outside Cardiff Crown Court
The Hardwick in Abergavenny, Wales – owned by celebrated chef Stephen Terry – is one of the country’s best restaurants
Prosecutor Tom Roberts said: ‘Nicola Nightingale began working there [The Hardwick] on February 13 2018 and was responsible for managing the business’s accounts and finances.
‘In March of 2020, as the Covid lockdown came into effect, Mr Terry became suspicious of her behaviour.
‘He and his wife contacted HSBC and found there were payments made directly to Mrs Nightingale outside the normal payment structure amounting at that stage to about £27,000.’
Mr Roberts said Mr Terry tried to contact both Mrs and Mr Nightingale to get the login details for their business accounts but they did not respond.
The following day Mrs Nightingale resigned via email and Mr Terry contacted Gwent Police, who began an investigation.
‘She left the restaurant owing suppliers £70,000 and £6,000 in business rates,’ Mr Roberts continued.
Celebrity chef Stephen Terry outside Cardiff Crown Court. He employed Mrs Nightingale as a financial adminstrator at his restaurant The Hardwick in Abergavenny
‘She also left the company owing £110,000 in PAYE and VAT, and she left the pension fund with a £10,000 shortfall.
‘She’d given the impression that the business was running smoothly but she had in fact run it into significant debt by extracting money from it for herself.’
During Mr Nightingale’s trial in February this year it was disclosed that part of the money had been spent on a number of foreign holidays.
Mr Nightingale claimed he believed the cash was his wife’s wages along with money for shifts he had carried out at the restaurant.
He told a jury: ‘There was no need for me to challenge her because it was her wages going into my account and my extracurricular wages going into my account.’
The court heard the couple went on multiple trips while also making payments to debt management company Lowell Portfolio Ltd to pay off store cards.
The couple’s daughter Jasmine, 22, claimed her mother had ‘complete control’ of the finances while they jetted off abroad.
In a victim impact statement, chef Mr Terry said: ‘This has caused significant reputational damage and is very hard to accept as we built this business from scratch and worked very hard to get to where we are now.’
In a victim impact statement written in June 2020 and read to the court, Mr Terry said the fraud was ‘potentially devastating’ to his business.
‘Over the past 15 years I’ve worked extremely hard to build a successful business in the heartland and throughout this time I’ve worked well with suppliers and built strong working relationships.
Stephen Terry (pictured) who was Gordon Ramsay’s best man, was fleeced out of £150,000
‘The impact of being defrauded of such a significant amount of money and having large outstanding payments to my suppliers is potentially devastating. There’s no doubt damage to my reputation and working relationships.
‘Had it not been for the unprecedented pandemic, that is Covid-19, I’m not certain that I would have been aware of the fraud. And I believe that the business would not have survived this financial loss.’
Mr Terry said he had since had to take out loans to pay back his suppliers and employees.
Mr Nightingale, who moved from Gilwern, Abergavenny to Deal, Kent, denied acquiring criminal property but was found guilty after a trial.
The court heard he was on a £55,000-a-year salary as a group head chef for Q Hotels at the time.
Mrs Nightingale, of Deal, Kent, pleaded guilty to fraud by abuse of position.
Defending Susan Ferrier, for Mrs Nightingale, said she was now seeking help for her alcohol problem.
She said: ‘Buying things became a way of coping and she became addicted, due to her addictive personality, to what she discovered she could do.’
Susan Ferrier, defending Mrs Nightingale, said her client had an ‘extreme problem with alcoholism and mental health’ and that those problems, with previous marriage troubles and losing her youngest brother, caused her to become addicted to buying things as a means of coping.
Ms Ferrier said Mrs Nightingale was ‘shocked’ at and ‘bitterly regretted’ the amount she had stolen, which accumulated over time, and is ‘haunted’ by the impact of her actions on others.
She said Mrs Nightingale, now a grandmother, was a low risk of reoffending and raised concerns about how she would cope in prison given her ‘fragile’ state.
Mr Nightingale’s defence, led by Martin Taylor, said the defendant accepted his ‘negligence’ and had ‘massive regret for allowing this situation to have arisen’.
Mr Taylor said Mr Nightingale was left having to ‘carry the family’, including caring for their two youngest children, aged 10 and 12, due to his wife’s difficulties.
Recorder Judge Barry Clarke sentenced Mrs Nightingale, who pleaded guilty to fraud, and Mr Nightingale, who was convicted of possession of criminal property after a trial, to a two-year suspended sentence and ordered both to complete 100 hours of unpaid work.
Millie Davies of the CPS said: ‘Nicola Nightingale took advantage of her position of trust within the business and used the opportunity for her own gain.
‘The CPS presented evidence showing there had been 55 transactions to Simon Nightingale’s account.
‘Instead of the money going towards legitimate business costs it ended up lining the pockets of two dishonest employees who have today been brought to justice.’