Danish social worker jailed for stealing £13m of government funds

Philip Oltermann
Photograph: Siphiwe Sibeko/Reuters

A Danish social worker has been sentenced to six-and-a-half years in prison for stealing 117m Danish kroner (£13m) of government funding intended for vulnerable people.

The case against Britta Nielsen has shaken the self-image of a state that has for years been regarded as having the lowest rate of corruption in the world.

State prosecutor Kia Reumert called the case “one of the gravest instances of financial crime in Danish history”.

Nielsen was employed for 40 years as a case worker at Socialstyrelsen, Denmark’s social services board, distributing funding to people in need. As recently as 2017 she was rewarded for her faithful services with the country’s silver medal of merit.

Allegations that Nielsen had siphoned away funds amounting to more than 121m kroner over the course of 25 years first emerged in August 2018.

After being sacked from her job, Nielsen fled to South Africa but was arrested and extradited to Denmark in November 2018.

During the course of her trial it emerged that Nielsen had embezzled funds by creating fictitious projects – one of them called “help for self-help” – that she had then linked to her own bank accounts.

Her defence has argued that the safeguards around welfare were too lax, and that both management and her colleagues knew how easy it was to siphon off money. Nielsen reportedly told the court: “It was a standing joke that you could easily add your own account number and then be off to the Bahamas.”

On Tuesday she declined to appeal after being read the court’s verdict. The prosecutor had called for a sentence of eight years, while the defence had argued for a sentence of four to six years.

Retrieving the millions Nielsen embezzled has turned out to be a complicated task. Out of 117m kroner the social worker is accused of having stolen, Denmark’s chamber of advocates has so far only retrieved 5m, by seizing her bank accounts, luxury properties in Denmark and South Africa, and a television.

Nielsen has three adult children who have been charged with gross robbery for each receiving funds amounting to several million dollars from their mother. They have all pleaded guilty.

One of the daughters is believed to have spent the money on purchasing expensive showjumping horses, making it difficult for the Danish treasury to retrieve the money.

The case against Nielsen’s children is scheduled to start at Glostrup court outside Copenhagen on 4 March. It is unclear whether Nielsen will testify in the case. She has argued in court that her children were unaware of the scam from which they were benefiting.