A team of specialist health professionals have been jailed for nine years for conspiring to defraud more than £430,000 from Basildon and Thurrock University Hospitals Foundation Trust.
The four perfusionists were found guilty following one of the longest trials ever held at Basildon Crown Court, and a major fraud investigation by NHS Protect.
Perfusionists operate heart and lung machinery during cardiac surgery and other major bypass procedures.
The team had been employed by the trust on a full time basis from 2007, following the opening of its new cardiothoracic centre.
However staff immediately began undertaking private work at other NHS hospitals, an investigation found. The trust was not notified about any potential conflict of interest.
The perfusion team was led by experienced perfusionist John Mullholland, who was convicted alongside his colleagues Ann Clements, Martin Oliver and Tom Cumberland.
All four were registered directors of London Perfusion Science, a firm from which they secured additional private work.
Mr Mullholland also told junior members of staff to work at other hospital sites and signed off for them to be paid up to 30 hours a month extra by the NHS as “emergency call out work”.
The case was referred to NHS Protect, following an initial trust investigation.
A subsequent NHS Protect probe found the team had only worked 55 per cent of their contracted hours at the trust, despite being paid full-time salaries.
The court found the team were overpaid by about 14,000 hours, allowing them to make substantial profits at the at the expense of the trust.
Sue Frith, who heads the national investigation service at NHS Protect, said: “From day one, John Mulholland and his associates set out to defraud the NHS of hundreds of thousands of pounds.
“The time, effort and planning that they were willing to put in to their criminal activities reaped them considerable rewards,” she continued.
“These custodial sentences reflect the seriousness of the offences and will act as a powerful deterrent to others.”
A trust spokeswoman said it “welcomes the outcome of this trial as it sends a clear message to those who abused their position of responsibility to cheat the NHS out of scarce resources”.
She added the trust has since introduced stricter safeguards, such as electronic attendance logs, to prevent such fraud being repeated.