THE owner of a local grants company has spoken of how she was 'betrayed' by her close friend who she stole thousands of pounds from her firm.

Claire Paton, 47, pleaded guilty at Kilmarnock Sheriff Court to stealing over £38,000 from Get 2 Grips with Grants, where she worked as a finance manager.

The fraudster, of Lindsay Crescent in Largs, also admitted to embezzling over £11,000 from the accounts of Douglas Park Nursery, where she was volunteer treasurer.

Gets 2 Grips with Grants managing director Louise McCarron told the News that she feels badly let down - and hopes all the monies are returned.

She said: "The betrayal and breach of trust was particularly devastating as Claire was not only a colleague, but a close friend."

The figures stolen amounted to £38,226 between January 2013 and December 2017.

A figure of £11,366 was also found to have been taken from the Douglas Park Nursery, based in Cathcart Road in Largs, between 2013 and 2017.

The deceit came to light after Paton went missing in December 2017.

Police discovered she had boarded a ferry from Ardrossan to Brodick before finding CCTV footage of her in an outdoor shop on Arran.

She was subsequently tracked down after several online appeals from her husband.

Louise added: "Claire’s lies began ever before she started working with us as a financial and grant manager, claiming to have been earning more than she was, as evidenced by a P45 found later.

"Within months of employment she’d started making regular unauthorised cash withdrawals, forging cheques and using the company debit card for her personal shopping, whilst also giving herself an unauthorised pay rise.

"The embezzlement was concealed in the financial documents she prepared for inspection by me monthly and my chartered accountant annually, stealing just enough to keep the business barely breaking even no matter how hard we worked, resulting in years of unnecessary stress and hardship. "Though a limited company, it’s my business. Claire stole from me.

"The betrayal and breach of trust was particularly devastating as I thought of her as not only a colleague, but a close friend.

"Luckily none of our clients were affected as all grant funding we help secure is paid directly to them.

"I don’t expect I’ll be compensated for the years of stress and hardship, but do hope I get back what’s been stolen and perhaps reimbursed for the substantial cost incurred through the months of investigation."

Prosecutor Ruairidh Ferguson told Kilmarnock Sheriff Court: “She was traced by police and she made reference to having stolen thousands of pounds from Get 2 Grips over a number of years.”

The court heard how Paton had been 'overpaying her own salary' and had taken cash out which had not been authorised.

She had also made a number of unauthorised debit card transactions.

While treasurer at Douglas Park Nursery, she paid out money in cheques which were cashed to her own account.

Mr Ferguson added: “Part of what the accused was doing was moving money between the two, Douglas Park Nursery and Get 2 Grips with Grants, to cover up what she was doing.”

Both the grants company and the nursery carried out investigations and Paton was arrested on June 22, 2018. She made full admissions about the embezzlement during an interview at Saltcoats police station.

A third charge of forging a signature was also admitted by Paton after investigations by the nursery revealed that she had falsely signed cheques using the signature of the person named on the account.

Paton’s defending agent told the court some money had been repaid to the 'businesses by the bank'.

Get 2 Grips with Grants has received some monies although Douglas Park Nursery have informed the News that they have not received anything as yet.

A spokeswoman for the nursery said: "We will be make a full statement after sentencing."

Sheriff Elizabeth McFarlane called for background reports to be prepared before Paton is sentenced on 18 February.

Bail previously allowed was continued.