Equestrianism: The showjumper and fraud – Bringing the sport into disrepute

By Laura Donnellan, School of Law, University of Limerick, Ireland

Numerous newspapers have covered the case of Elise David, an amateur showjumper, who was found guilty of one count of fraud by Judge Daniel Williams at Newport Crown Court on 11 January 2019 following a four-day trial (Case no. T20180618, see: https://www.thelawpages.com/court-hearings-lists/crown-court-daily/12/lists/2019-01-11 and Liz Day, Courts Reporter, ‘Senior NHS manager “took part in equestrian sports” while claiming she couldn’t work due to bad back’, WalesOnline, 8 January 2019, https://www.walesonline.co.uk/news/wales-news/senior-nhs-manager-took-part-15648345).

Most of the headlines include the word ‘showjumper’, which gives the impression that the defendant was guilty of fraud in the showjumping arena. However, the headlines have been somewhat misleading, as David committed the fraud against her employer, the NHS (National Health Service), after a colleague of the defendant discovered photographic evidence and the posting of results on the British Eventing (BE) website. BE has been tainted by its association with the defendant and its tenuous relationship with her is based on David being a member.

As a member, she is bound by the rules and regulations (The 2019 BE Rules and Handbook can be downloaded from https://www.britisheventing.com/asp-net/news/item.aspx?id=7287).

David is not an employee of the BE. The binding obligations of membership that are explicitly stated in its Rules and Handbook relate to the rules of the BEF (British Equestrian Federation) and doping in section 2.3, page six. The rules refer to ‘bringing the sport into disrepute’ in reference to corporate members and sponsors. There is no reference to individual members and their duty not to bring the sport into disrepute. While the showjumping aspect is pertinent to the fraud committed, it was not perpetrated against the BE, nor is there any evidence to suggest that the BE was aware that David was on sick leave from work.

She worked as a quality manager at the Surgical Materials Testing Laboratory (SMTL) at the Princess of Wales Hospital in Bridgend.  Following a riding accident in June 2016,  David was signed off from work for four months and was in receipt of sick pay amounting to £12,000 (BBC News, ‘Sick-pay Showjumping NHS manager guilty of fraud’, BBC.com, 11 January 2019, https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-wales-46841091).  She complained of a decrease in mobility and stated that she was unable to drive due to injuries to her head and back.

Photographs of David competing in four events (dressage, cross country and showjumping competitions) from July to September 2016 along with the results of these events were posted on the BE website (Results for CAEREAU FREEWAY,  https://www.britisheventing.com/asp-net/events/Results.aspx?HorseId=122504).

It was not until July 2017 that the defendant’s employers became aware of the online material, when a  member of management saw the post and informed the laboratory technical manager, who referred the matter to the NHS Counter Fraud Authority (Liz Day, Courts Reporter, ‘NHS manager paid £12,000 while off sick with bad back photographed taking part in horse riding events’, WalesOnline, 9 January 2019, https://www.walesonline.co.uk/news/wales-news/nhs-manager-paid-12000-sick-15653851).

In March of 2018, fraud investigator Nigel Price from the Cardiff and Vale University Health Board interviewed David and informed her of the allegations; she told the court how she was ‘shocked’ (ibid). After the accident, David did not immediately seek medical attention; however, the next day she attended her doctor and presented herself to A & E the day after her GP visit (ibid). When asked at an event if it was she (Elise David) on the horse, the defendant replied ‘no comment’, but subsequently, answered in the affirmative (ibid). The name on the entry was different to that of David and this was, according to the prosecution, a way of hiding the fact that she was competing (ibid). She explained to the court that someone else was supposed to ride the horse, but she felt able to compete that day (ibid). In September 2016,  David met with her employers and complained of back spasms (ibid). When asked by her employer why she was using hiking sticks, David responded that she ‘had good and bad days’ and that the sticks were to help with balance and that her doctor had recommended some exercise to aid her recovery (ibid). In taking her doctor’s advice, David decided to return to riding her horse (ibid). She returned to work in October 2016; however, in February 2017 she resigned and left her post in April 2017 (Liz Day, Courts Reporter, ‘Senior NHS manager “took part in equestrian sports” while claiming she couldn’t work due to bad back’, WalesOnline, 8 January 2019, https://www.walesonline.co.uk/news/wales-news/senior-nhs-manager-took-part-15648345).

In denying the charges, David contended that the investigator did not understand her medical reports. She had suffered a head injury, which affected her memory and felt that she could not fulfil her job as a quality manager. She denied ‘grossly exaggerating’ her injuries (Philip Dewey, ‘NHS manager pictured taking part in horse riding events while off sick “didn’t want to worry” her bosses by telling them’, WalesOnline, 9 January 2019’, WalesOnline, 10 January 2019, https://www.walesonline.co.uk/news/wales-news/nhs-manager-pictured-taking-part-15660982).

Her evasive answers to the fraud investigator were documented at the trial. When asked by the investigator if she was the owner of the horse, she replied ‘no comment’. The defendant explained to the court that she was unsure of who the legal owner was until she checked the horse’s passport. It transpired that ownership was in her name; however, she informed the court that her father had paid for the horse and the receipt was in her father’s name (ibid). The prosecutor challenged this and proffered that the defendant was ‘desperately trying to work out what could be proved against her’ (ibid). When asked by Judge Williams why she had not informed her employer that she had been horse riding, David stated that she did not want to worry them, and she felt it was imperative that she get back on the horse sooner rather than later (ibid).

In finding that the defendant had defrauded her employer, Judge Williams referred to David as ‘cynical’ and ‘dishonest’ (Philip Dewey, ‘Showjumping NHS boss who pretended to be unable to walk condemned by judge’, WalesOnline, 11 January 2019, https://www.walesonline.co.uk/news/elise-david-guilty-nhs-showjumping-15664220).

Judge Williams in condemning David’s actions stated:

‘You claimed to have been too unfit to return to work for a period of four months but you were taking part in showjumping tournaments…You had to attend a number of sickness reviews at the hospital. They were unaware you had been showjumping whilst on the sick list and your performance at those meetings was comical. You appeared to be unable to walk unaided…That sorry figure was a contrast to the photos I have seen of you towering on your horse whilst competing’ (ibid).

In finding the defendant guilty of fraud, the Judge imposed a 12-week sentence, which he suspended for one year (ibid). She must carry out 180 hours of unpaid work and pay £8,216 in compensation to the Cardiff and Vale University Health Board and £2,500 towards the prosecution’s costs.

An important factor in this case was that of the misuse of public money.

Judge Williams stated that ‘you felt entitled to defraud the public purse’ (ibid).

Whilst this comment was not directed at a sport’s governing body in this instance, it is a consideration for many sports bodies when it comes to spending public money and the importance of transparency and integrity in sports governance. The BE was, unfortunately, associated with the actions of David and it could, perhaps, invoke its disciplinary powers on the ground that the defendant brought the sport into disrepute and thus breached its Code of Conduct.

Laura Donnellan may be contacted by e-mail at ‘Laura.Donnellan@ul.ie’