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Thursday 13 December 2018

Co-op thief who stole €44,000 to finish dream home spared prison

Ballinful Co-op in North Sligo.
Ballinful Co-op in North Sligo.

Court Reporter

The manager of a Co-op in Ballinful who stole goods worth almost €44,000 from the business over a four and a half year span, has been given the benefit of the Probation Act.

Declan Meehan (36) of Cashelgarron, Grange, appeared before Sligo Circuit Criminal Court last week, defended by Mr Keith O'Grady BL, instructed by Mr Micheal Horan solicitor.

Mr O'Grady said Meehan, who pleaded guilty at an earlier court hearing to the theft offences between March 10th 2009 and September 16th 2013, had "suffered significant sanction being brought before the court."

He told Judge Keenan Johnson that Meehan had "succumbed to temptation and lived to regret that."

Judge Johnson agreed to apply the Probation Act to Meehan.

Ms Dara Foynes BL prosecuted the case with State Solicitor for Sligo Ms Elisa McHugh. Meehan took property valued at €43,942.18 belonging to Ballinful Co-op when building his home during the recession.

The court heard Meehan had been building his dream home when the recession hit and he was under duress from his mortgage provider to get some work finished and he began to order goods through the co-op. His actions resulted in his parents’ home being dispossessed and they are now living in rented accommodation.

His house too was sold and the money was paid back to the Co-op.

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Ms Dara Foynes BL (prosecuting) with State Solicitor Ms Elisa McHugh said the case was complex and involved serious offending which was crunched into one count relating to the dates in question. Meehan had taken property valued at €43,942.18 belonging to Ballinful Co-op.

She said that Hugh Clancy, Chairman of the Co-op in his statement said when Meehan handed in his resignation it was greeted with surprise. The committee then noticed invoice irregularities with the accounts.

Goods Made Their Way to Meehan's House

Detective Inspector Ray Mulderrig told the court the goods were ordered on behalf of Ballinful Co-op which paid for them and they found their way to Meehan’s home.

He said an account held by Meehan purchased the goods and to balance out issues credit notes cancelled out the bills owed. Meehan had gone voluntarily to garda interviews where he admitted the offences. Ms Foynes said that at the time he was building a house and most of the exhibits were products used in the building of the house.

The amounts ranged from €6 to €266. She said that the Co-op brought in a forensics investigations firm, chartered accountants Gilroy Gannon, to go through the accounts which took a period of time.

A statement from Gilroy Gannon the firm which carried out the investigation into the accounts said the IT system was under the control of Meehan. It appeared a level of thought and deception went into how it was being operated whereby dates could be entered and then back dated and so forth.

On his second interaction with gardaí further matters were put to him and he admitted them. Ms Foynes said the accused had the full responsibility of the running of the store and when an invoice came through from an IT store it triggered suspicion as it wasn’t goods generally ordered by the Co-op and when Meehan was asked about it as he didn’t give a good explanation.

Ms Foynes said the forensic investigation was a substantial expense on the Co-op of €26,000, an expense it could ill afford and was a knock on effect from the actions of Meehan.

Well-Respected Family

Inspector Mulderrig said previous to this Meehan was of good character and came from a well respected family in the locality. He said Meehan co-operated fully with gardaí and answered every question put to him during the investigation.

He said the management or directors of the co-op were shocked when Meehan handed in his resignation to go to other employment as they got on very well. He had been working there from 2008 to 2013, a period of 5 years.

Mr Keith O’Grady BL instructed by Mr Michael Horan solicitor said the local Co-op in Ballinful has since accepted an offer from a bigger conglomerate and is now thriving.

He said that when his client left the Co-op to take up another position of employment the irregularities appeared.

The Co-op’s solicitor wrote a letter to him and after his client received the letter he contacted Hugh Clancy, chairman of the Co-op by phone and said: “I owe ye money”.

There was extensive correspondence where Meehan accepted there was money owed and had written an acknowledgement of debt.

Mr O’Grady said his client had ran out of money finishing his house. The goods involved included radiators, doors, door frames etc which were delivered through the Co-op. It progressed somewhat he said to the altering of computer records. This was at the time the recession had hit and things were particularly bad.

Inspector Mulderrig agreed that it was a particularly difficult time for anyone building or finishing a property. Mr O’Grady said his client’s parents’ house was then repossessed and sold on the family land as was his own house. His said his client’s parents who were in court were extremely well-respected people and had never seen the inside of a courthouse before. He said their farm in North Sligo now had two homes owned by third parties.

Impact on Parents and Family

His parents are living in rented accommodation while Meehan is living in council accommodation in Bundoran. Mr O’Grady said the local aspect of this offence cannot be overemphasised and Inspector Mulderrig agreed that in such a small rural area that it will be known for a long time in the locality and said the impact on his parents and family is huge.

His house was sold to satisfy the monies owed. Mr O’Grady told the court that a cheque of €31,995 was paid on July 31, 2015 and Inspector Mulderrig confirmed this. Mr O’Grady said that left a substantial balance which has since all been paid by his client’s solicitor. Inspector Mulderrig said there was no matter outstanding on the appropriation amount. Mr O’Grady then said the outstanding amount was the firm’s auditors Gilroy Gannon bill f €26,000.

He said the auditors statutory function was to satisfy themselves that all matters were in order and that was why the bill was substantial.

Judge Keenan Johnson said that whatever costs Meehan’s offending incurred that the Co-operation cannot be out a cent.

When asked by Mr O’Grady if he would say it’s unlikely Meehan will be seen again before the court Inspector Mulderrig said he wouldn’t disagree. Mr O’Grady described Meehan as being blame free until this offending. He had completed his Leaving in Grange and then worked with his father in his bathrooms business where they had showrooms in Sligo town and the business unfortunately collapsed around the time Meehan began working with Ballinful Co-op.

He got on well and was building his dream family home, taking out a mortgage of €175,000, along with savings of €12,000 and a Credit Union loan his parents took out. Mr O’Grady said the Mortgage provider was not going to draw down any further until certain works were carried out and Meehan was instructed to do this in order to save his house and that of his parents. He had intended to make amends to the Co-op.

Family Home Repossessed

The mortgage company then repossessed the family home from his parents off the family land as there was a mortgage on the family home first. The house was sold and is now occupied by the HSE.

Mr O’Grady said in relation to his client’s house there was equity on this house at the time it was sold which allowed his solicitor to retain monies to the Co-op.

“The net result of all this is the family is off the family land houses which are in the ownership of third parties including the State. He said his client appearing in the Circuit Court on theft fraud had a very severe impact on him and his wider family including his partner and children. He said he was currently employed with a bus company and was not suspended or dismissed but will have to deal with the garda vetting process which will have a huge impact.

Judge Johnson said he wanted to get clarity on the forensic investigation and what was owed. He said Meehan, who pleaded guilty to theft offences over a protracted period caused a loss of €43,942.18 to Ballinful Co-op which was since reimbursed by the accused. He said being manager in a Co-op was a significant achievement as the local enterprise is valued as a place in the community and every parish in Ireland had a Co-op.

He said Meehan when building his house carried out the temptation of taking property of the Co-op as he was under severe pressure at the time. He said the impact on his family especially his parents saw their house being dispossessed and were now living in rented accommodation.

Judge Johnson said the aggravating factors were the breach of trust, the offending period of 4 years approximately which suggested a level of premeditation. He said mitigating factors were the early plea of guilt which saved time and the cost of a Circuit Court trial which would have been extensive and co-operation with gardaí which he said were very significant mitigating factors as they would have put an enormous amount of cost on the State without.

Enormous Reputational Damage

He said Meehan co-operated fully in his interviews with gardaí and when the Co-op solicitor wrote to him he rang the chairman and never disputed what was due. He said there was an enormous damage to his reputation among his peers in the wider community which were ever more severe in a small community like Ballinful. The judge said he noted garda vetting would be a problem in a position of employment going further.

“He has a very good work ethic if he is still in employment,” he added. He said by the way the accused approached the case he was satisfied there was no use in imposing a custodial sentence.

He adjourned the matter until June 25 to figure out the additional cost incurred by the Co-op was agreed by the parties to agree a schedule of payment.

Judge Johnson said he wanted to compliment Hugh Clancy, chairman of Ballinful Co-op who he described as being stuck between a rock and a hard place and carried out his duties in a voluntary function and the stress this must have caused him. “Credit where credit is due,” he added.

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