Saturday 25 May 2019

Solicitor admits stealing over €350,000 from client accounts

A former solicitor at a Wicklow town firm who admitted the theft of hundreds of thousands of euro from client accounts over the course of several years, received a suspended sentence at Wicklow Circuit Court last Wednesday.

Michelle Caulfield (39), Drummin, Tinahely, was charged with 34 counts of theft from Augustus Cullen Law, Detective Garda Eoin Martin told the court. She entered pleas of guilty to nine, with the remainder taken into consideration.

The total amount in question was €356,331.70. Approximately €200,000 of that was taken by Caulfield for the benefit of herself or members of her family, while the remainder was money moved between accounts within the law firm. The court heard that was still, technically, theft.

The thefts occurred between 2006 and 2015 when the misappropriation was eventually discovered.

Caulfield qualified fully as a solicitor in 2007. The bulk of the offending occurred between 2012 and 2015 and largely the money was used for her father's business, and debts accrued as the business was floundering.

There were 26 different client accounts affected and, since the start of the investigation, all money has been repaid. Judge Terrence O'Sullivan heard that Caulfield had sold her house; that she had sold a car obtained using some of the stolen money; and that family members had re-mortgaged property to come up with money to be repaid.

Caulfield was the only one who knew that money had been stolen, the court heard, even though there were a number of beneficiaries in her family.

The client accounts belonged to people who were deceased in many cases and, in at least one instance, there was money taken from the account of a minor who was the beneficiary of a court order.

Another sum of money was intended for a charitable organisation upon the death of the person.

In each case, Caulfield used a cheque requisition form to acquire a cheque from the accounts department. Some of those were exchanged for bank drafts and lodged to her own account. Other cheques were made out to recipients such as her doctor, car dealerships, and bodies to which her father owed money.

Some larger sums were transferred at times from one client account to another. The court heard that this was a case of 'robbing Peter to pay Paul'.

The discovery of wrongdoing was made when a client presented at the practice as a beneficiary, looking for a sum owed.

The account was found to be €15,000 short and payment had been made to an unrelated person.

This sparked off an investigation. Accountants for the Law Society provided a detailed analysis and provided a report to the gardaí.

Caulfield made admissions to gardaí and explained many of the transactions.

Some examples included €27,000 paid to a car dealership; a hospital bill of €700 for a relative; €25,000 lodged into her father's business account; €36,000 lodged to her own account; €650 spent on furniture; €1,100 paid in cash to a relative; cars for her parents; car insurance for her husband; and other sums.

On one occasion in 2014, she was lodging a cheque for over €20,000 to her own account and the bank queried it. She told the firm that a client had looked for payment, that she had paid them out of her own account, and that she was reimbursing herself.

She produced bank statements showing the money leaving her account. This was accepted by the firm who paid the money. On examination, it transpired that client had not been paid and the money went from her savings account to her current account.

The court heard that if she had not made full and detailed admissions, there would have been a lengthy and technical trial.

Caulfield was struck off the solicitors' roll in 2017, by the president of the High Court. The court heard that there had been reporting restrictions at the time, made on compassionate grounds.

Barrister Michael O'Higgins said that when his client's wrongdoing was exposed, she took steps to mitigate loss - selling her house and car.

He said that the lodgements to her own account were for the benefit of third parties, in particular her father's creditors, mortgage payments and so on. Her father's business was in trouble and he had accrued debts.

Mr O'Higgins said that there was a complex mosaic regarding the transactions, and to have a suspect sit down and lead investigators through the evidence was 'worth its weight in gold' in a case like this.

Mr O'Higgins said that there are very far reaching consequences for Caulfield. She has lost her standing in the community, he said. She had joined the firm in 2003 after going to Waterford IT for a diploma in law, and UCC for her degree, and subsequently passing five FE1 exams. He said that she did this entirely under her own steam financially.

She is now living as a 'virtual recluse', said Mr O'Higgins.

She got a job in Dublin in 2017 but when named for possible promotion, and further enquiries were made, she was quietly let go.

Mr O'Higgins said that his client had previous good character, had cooperated fully with the investigation, and the chances that she would appear again in court were very slight indeed.

'It's a very sad case with very significant punitive consequences which will stay with the accused for a very long time,' he said.

A solicitor who had represented Caulfield from the time she interacted with the Law Society said that the manner in which Caulfield met the investigation was 'extraordinary'.

Sean Sexton has been a solicitor for 49 years, specialises in this area. 'To a great extent I'm lost in admiration for her,' he said. 'She has shown extraordinary strength. She made a terrible mistake and she's paid a terrible price,' said Mr Sexton.

He said that Caulfield had immediately acknowledged the error of her ways. and had been determined to reimburse the monies.

He was concerned about her welfare and referred her to a counselling psychologist, Professor Barbara Hannigan.

Professor Hannigan told the court that she found Caulfield to have suffered from PTSD, and the clinical condition 'parentification', meaning inappropriate role reversal.

Caulfield was the perceived peacemaker in the family home who had responsibility at a young age way beyond her years, Prof Hannigan diagnosed.

Caulfield and her partner (subsequent husband) began to build a house in 2006 and that project was beset with problems, including the theft of glass from the windows, vandalism with hammers, and flooding.

In 2011, she became aware of her father's financial difficulties.

The court heard that Caulfield's relationship with her husband also deteriorated around that time, and that there was serious upheaval and hostility in the home. The court heard that Caulfield had met him at the age of 15 and she had never had any other partner.

The court heard that Caulfield was 'an accustomed people pleaser', and she would do anything to save her marriage, and that she was under pressure from others to provide money. She was weakened and vulnerable, the court was told.

Prof Hannigan consulted a colleague to assess her diagnoses and assessments, and they were confirmed.

'She is embarrassed, ashamed and distressed,' said Professor Hannigan. 'This is the biggest wake-up call she, or any person, could have.'

Barrister Michael O'Higgins said that while a lot of attention had been paid to the plight of the defendant, there had been a crime committed, and she wished to apologise profusely and unreservedly to her former employers and a whole host of other people who had held her in high regard, for breaching their trust.

'She finds herself experiencing a spectacular fall from grace,' said Mr O'Higgins, who wondered how her life would have been different if other things had been different.

He said that she had been of impeccable good character before the offending, and had met the investigation with cooperation. She had a higher degree of stressors in her life than most people, he said.

Judge Terrence O'Sullivan said that aggravating factors included the breach of trust of her employers, and those people to whom the money belonged.

Mitigating factors included her having no previous history of offending, her obvious remorse, and the fact that she had entered an early plea and cooperated fully. Also mitigating, was the fact that all monies had been repaid.

He said that she has lost her career and lost her standing in the community.

Judge O'Sullivan said that most of the money was to assist others, particularly her father, rather than to fund a high lifestyle, although she did purchase a car.

He remarked that the clear view of Prof Hannigan was that Caulfield had suffered with PTSD and parentification. He said that while not an excuse for criminal behaviour, it provided context and she had a lot of significant problems.

Judge O'Sullivan handed Caulfield a one-year sentence, fully suspended.

Wicklow People