Saturday 21 September 2019

'Phenomenal breach of trust' - credit union worker stole more than €400,000 from accounts of dead members

Moira Coughlan (55) faced 592 charges related to theft from Synergy/Fermoy Credit Union

Moira Coughlan, The Stables, Glanmire, Co Cork. Photo: Courtpix
Moira Coughlan, The Stables, Glanmire, Co Cork. Photo: Courtpix

Ralph Riegel

A TRUSTED employee admitted the theft of more than €400,000 from an Irish credit union and to spending the cash just to impress others.

Judge Sean O'Donnabhain told Moira Coughlan (55) the breach of trust she committed was "phenomenal" as she pleaded guilty to withdrawing funds from the accounts of deceased credit union members in an elaborate scheme over seven years.

The mother of one appeared before Cork Circuit Criminal Court after pleading guilty to a total of 592 charges in respect of Synergy/Fermoy Credit Union in North Cork.

The charges involved theft, unlawful use of a computer and false accounting.

Judge O'Donnabhain warned that, irrespective of the compensation to be raised, he could not deal with the case on non-custodial basis.

"I will not deal with this matter on a fully suspended sentence basis," he said.

"This was a phenomenal breach of trust. The level of culpability, the level of fraud involved in this case is on the phenomenally high (level)."

Defence counsel Patrick O'Riordan BL asked for sentencing to be adjourned to allow his client to raise a substantial compensation package for the credit union.

He said she hopes to be able to offer up to €200,000 through an inheritance, a pension and other means.

However, he said this will take time to achieve.

Judge O'Donnabhain remanded Coughlan in custody until February 8 next when he said he wants to see concrete progress on the compensation package.

Mr O'Riordan BL told the court his client had suffered greatly as a consequence of her actions.

"There was a robbing Peter to pay Paul element. All the money is dissipated," he said.

"She wanted the money to fund lifestyle expenses.

"She was spending the money to get positive attention from others.

"There were others willing to benefit from her largesse."

Det Garda James O'Shea told the court a Synergy Credit Union official became concerned about a transaction made by the defendant in 2016.

Auditors Grant Thornton were notified and an internal probe was launched of the north Cork credit union.

That uncovered a large number of unauthorised withdrawals from the accounts of deceased credit union members.

Synergy official Martina Cotter made a formal complaint to gardaí in 2017.

Det Garda O'Shea said that the defendant worked as an insurance officer for the credit union, a senior and very trusted position within the financial organisation.

This allowed her access to the accounts of credit union members who had died pending the accounts clearing probate.

Over the seven year period, she withdrew a total of €407,441.94 in unauthorised transactions.

The lowest total annual withdrawal from such accounts was €6,000 in 2009 and the biggest was €107,350 in 2016.

"She would make a transaction from (one) deceased (member) account to pay off a (deceased member) account when it finished probate," he said.

Det Garda O'Shea said it was unclear where all the money had gone.

The defendant told gardaí she used the cash for day-to-day living and to pay several loans which she had taken out.

Some withdrawals were used to plug gaps in her personal finances.

"There were none of the trappings of wealth," the Garda acknowledged.

He said the defendant had co-operated fully with both the credit union probe and the subsequent Garda investigation.

The investigation involved her computer and mobile phone being seized.

Judge O'Donnabhain was told the loss to the credit union was covered by insurance.

Synergy had since refunded all unauthorised withdrawals to all accounts involved.

"No member of the credit union was left out of pocket," Det Garda O'Shea said.

The court heard that Coughlan, the mother of an adult child, is now separated and has moved out of her native Mitchelstown.

She has also suffered from psychiatric problems and had self-harmed.

The charges were first levelled before Fermoy District Court last May but the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) ruled that the matter be dealt with on indictment by judge and jury before Cork Circuit Criminal Court.

The defendant went forward to the Circuit Court on a signed plea of guilty to all 592 charges.

The defendant of The Stables, Mineville, Knocknahorgan, Sallybrook, Glanmire, Co Cork appeared in court with her arm in a sling and did not speak during the sentencing hearing, sitting with her head bowed.

The 592 counts include 251 charges of theft contrary to Section 4 of the Criminal Justice Theft and Fraud Offences Act, 2001, 300 charges of the unlawful use of a computer contrary to Section 9 of the same Act and 41 counts of false accounting contrary to Section 10 of the Act.

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