A man has been cleared of taking data without permission from an accountancy firm ran by a former SNP councillor.
Liam McCreath, 37, worked for Angus Nicolson, 60, between 2015 and 2020 at his company in Glasgow.
McCreath – hired as a tax manager and later became a practice manager – went on to start his own firm based in Renfrew.
The ex-Western Isles councillor and chairman of the environment and planning committee claimed that McCreath took data of 60 to 80 of his clients.
This included “highly sensitive information” such as spreadsheets and payroll data from the Nicolson Accountancy company server.
Nicolson – who was expelled from an accounting body in 2015 over professional misconduct – stated that the data was enough to start a company straight away.
McCreath, of Paisley, was accused of knowingly or recklessly obtained personal details without the knowledge of the company’s data controller.
It was alleged he removed a quantity of files from the office in the city’s Kelvinbridge related to people employed by Nicolson Accountancy and their clients.
The charge against McCreath was found not proven at Glasgow Sheriff Court following a five-day trial.
Sheriff Valerie Mays told the court that she found Mr Nicolson and wife Susan, 56, credible and reliable witnesses.
However, the sheriff added: “I accept and find that Mr McCreath acted the way he did is that he believed that the Nicolsons would not hand over the information as soon as he wished.
“He acted in the way he did and downloaded the data.
“In doing so, it was unprofessional and unethical and I accept he tried to cover his tracks.
“The evidence does not show he obtained the data relating to anyone who were clients of the Nicolsons without consent.”
Nicolson started the firm with his wife after moving to Glasgow from Stornoway.
He was thrown out the SNP after saying he planned to stand as an independent councillor in 2017.
Nicolson was excluded from the Institute of Chartered Accountants of Scotland and ordered to pay £20,700 of costs at a tribunal.
Mr Nicolson was found guilty of professional misconduct for claiming £815 on a computer on his tax return which had also been reclaimed as an expense in his business partnership.
A supporter of Mr Nicolson claimed on a website that he left the institute as it “brought no benefit” to his business.
McCreath’s trial heard he was hired by Mr Nicolson in 2015 to be a tax manager before becoming a practice manager.
Mr Nicolson said in his evidence: “We felt he fitted under the ethos of the practice.”
Mr Nicolson claimed his relationship “deteriorated severely” with McCreath in March 2020.
The witness stated that McCreath advertised the business on a website to bid for accounting work without permission.
Mr Nicolson added: “We felt that he was trying to do too much in the practice and wished him to focus on completing tax returns.
“We were filing 1,100 to 1,300 tax returns each year which is a heavy workload and we needed to be on top of it.
“We wanted him to focus on that rather than other aspects of the business.”
Mr Nicolson stated that McCreath involved himself in areas such as the accountancy side when he did not have sufficient skills.
The witness told the court that the business worked remotely following the pandemic.
Staff monitoring software was put on the company’s server.
Mr Nicolson said McCreath meantime had meetings with clients outside of work.
He added that he was “dissatisfied” with McCreath’s performance when it came to work being done.
Mr Nicolson claimed he gave McCreath time off work in September 2020.
He said: “We hoped he would be able to recover his mojo and be able to get back and do the work.”
Mr Nicolson stated that he found that McCreath had set up his own tax company as well as a Facebook page.
The witness was able to look into the work emails of McCreath.
He said: “What concerned me was I could see people getting taken on apparently as Nicolson Accountancy but they did not appear on our client list.
“The client appeared to be engaging with Nicolson Accountancy.
“This caused me concern from a professional insurance point of view.”
Mr Nicolson stated that he became aware that data had been transferred from the company’s server to a Dropbox controlled by McCreath.
The witness claimed that he could see that the information had been accessed by McCreath at 5.30am.
Prosecutor Redmond Harris asked what type of information had been accessed.
Mr Nicolson replied: “Client files and they were transferred to a system that was out with the control of the firm.”
This included spreadsheets, payroll and client accounting information as well as supporting documents.
He added: “Potentially the full accounting details of the individual clients and full tax information, bank details, details of transactions that they may have had…a lot of highly sensitive information.”
Mr Nicolson claimed that the total amount of information taken was 600 to 700 individual files.
He said: “It was very apparent that any such information could be used to provide full accounting services to potential clients.
“There was enough there to start working for these clients straight away.”
Mr Nicolson stated that McCreath’s employment was termanated.
Mr Harris asked why and witness responded: “On the grounds that this was a gross breach of trust.”
Mr Nicolson claimed he took legal advice and negotiated an exit agreement as well as a return of the files.
The witness stated that he did not receive all of the files and had to ask for a second lot to be sent.
Mr Harris asked how many companies were involved.
Mr Nicolson replied: “I estimate 60 to 80 – this does not include the employees and employers.”
Mr Nicolson told the court that his wife initially contacted the police.
He said: “We were concerned after the first upload that we had everything returned.
“After the second upload, we were told the same thing.
“We were concerned that this might not be correct.”
Andrew Murphy, defending, put it to the witness that his client resigned which he agreed.
He said: “I suggest having got what you wanted, maybe it was as an act of revenge to go to the police to go the police anyway?”
Mr Nicolson replied: “I think you are grossly mischaracterising that.”
The advocate later suggested to the witness that he was “full of glib answers from the beginning.”
Mr Nicolson said: “I refute that.”