A HAMPSHIRE financial director who stole nearly £170,000 from his employers to pay crippling credit card debts has been jailed for two years.

Christopher Brown, 55, from Lymington, claimed that he took the money from luxury goods firm Dawsons to stop his then-wife Mandy from revealing he was gay.

Brown maintained he felt pressurised to live beyond his means after she discovered he had been making phone calls to gay chatlines - and threatened to expose his sexuality.

He told the jury at Bournemouth Crown Court: ''She took exception - I was desperate not to leave the family so I got into this financial mess.''

Brown split from his wife in 2003 and he started a new life in France with a male partner, with whom he set up a bed and breakfast business.

But he was forced to return to the UK from France last year after a European Arrest Warrant was issued.

Brown insisted he had not stolen the money from Dawsons - where he had worked for 23 years - but had borrowed it and repaid all but £35,000 of what he had taken.

The defendant, of Grafton Gardens, Lymington, was found guilty last month of four charges of theft, dated between 2000 and 2003.

The court heard Brown stole £169,733.33 from Dawsons where he was employed as finance director and had complete control over the firm's finances.

Brown wrote out 56 cheques with around £140,000 paid directly to credit card companies to meet his mounting debts. The remainder he paid into his own account.

An internal audit carried out while Brown was on holiday revealed a large discrepancy in the firm's accounts.

The other two directors confronted him on his return in November 2003 and Brown agreed to resign.

Prosecutor Audrey Archer told today's sentencing hearing: ''The defendant was in a high position of trust at his place of employment.

''The Crown submits these offences fall into the higher category because the defendant was in a position of a higher degree of trust.''

Brian Sharman, defending, said Brown - of previous good character - had been living with the offences hanging over him since the police first wanted to speak to him in 2006.

''This was offending committed with a very unusual set of circumstances,'' he said.

''It is perhaps not unreasonable that had these reasons not conspired in a perfect storm he would have remained, as he had for many years, an honest employee.''

Recorder James Watson QC said Brown's offending was so serious that only an immediate custodial sentence was appropriate.

''You were convicted by a jury of theft. It was a substantial theft and it was a theft which took place over a substantial period,'' the judge said.

''It was also a theft which involved a substantial degree of dishonesty and breach of trust.

''I do take the view, despite the mitigation, this is a matter that I must pass an immediate custodial sentence.

''You choose to siphon off cash from the company business accounts to fund your personal accounts and your family.

''What you did was done in a clandestine way and the jury's verdict was that you were dishonest throughout the period.

''You knew full well what you were doing was dishonest. I am quite satisfied that you were deluding yourself in the early days in that you would be able to repay the money.

''It is a matter of deep regret that in a small company no one else had overview of what you were doing. A thorough audit may well have uncovered what you were doing.''

The judge said the case was ''unusual'' and added: ''I do take into account the pressures upon your life - your own sexuality - and the shame of being unable to admit to yourself your sexuality.''

The judge also ordered Brown to pay £4,800 prosecution costs.

The prosecution reserved its right to apply for the forfeiture of Brown's assets under the Proceeds of Crime Act.

Brown's ex-wife, who was in court to see him sentenced, did not wish to comment afterwards.