A former school principal and well known Laois GAA coach has been jailed for stealing over €100,000 from a school in Portlaoise.
Malachy McNulty, 39, Summerhill, Beladd, Portlaoise admitted stealing the money from St Francis School in Portlaoise between January 2017 and February 2019 to fund a gambling addiction.
In total, there were 381 counts of theft. The thefts were discovered when Chairman of the Board of Management Fr Paddy Byrne made enquiries after hearing the principal had been visiting local bookmakers during school hours.
This morning Judge Keenan Johnson jailed him for six years but suspended four and half years of the sentence on a number of conditions including the repayment of the outstanding stolen money.
Mr McNulty remained calm in court as the sentence was read out. Judge Johnson said he was sorry to have to impose the sentence and said “I wish you well”.
The full sentence by Judge Keenan Johnson as read at the Circuit Court sitting in Portlaoise on Thursday, June 23.
There are 381 counts of theft on the indictment and the accused has pleaded guilty to 15 sample counts on a full facts basis. The series of thefts took place from the bank account of St Francis School Portlaoise between the months of January 2017 and February 2019. The total amount stolen amounted to €101,100.21. Each offence carries a maximum sentence of up to 10 years in prison.
The background to the offending is that the accused was appointed as principal of St Francis School in January 2017. The school caters for students between the ages of 4 and 18 with mild-to-moderate disability. In January 2019 it was brought to the attention of Father Paddy Byrne the chairperson of the board of management that the accused had been noted frequenting betting shops in Portlaoise.
In the light of this information Father Byrne carried out a review of the school's accounts and made discovery of cheques that have been written and of which he was totally unaware. He immediately confronted the accused who admitted that he was stealing funds from the school to fund his gambling addiction.
Shortly after this the accused was admitted to the psychiatric unit in Portlaoise for two weeks and from there he went to the Rutland Centre.
The Department of Education financial services undertook an audit of the school's accounts and established that the accused moved money between the school's bank accounts and drew down from these for his own personal use. It appears that he was stealing monies for personal use on an almost daily basis.
Initially the amounts were relatively small but as his gambling debt got bigger and his habit grew, the amounts being stolen began to increase. There were two mechanisms used in the theft of the monies one was by making cheques payable to himself and the other was through use of the school's credit card.
On examination it was found that 63 cheques were drawn in favour of the accused and that he forged the signature of Father Byrne on 48 of these cheques. The other cheques were signed by Father Byrne in good faith. There were 318 Visa card transactions which totalled €57,643. The amount stolen through the use of cheques was 42,305.
On 19 December 2020 the accused was arrested and interviewed. He gave fulsome cooperation to the Gardai and admitted the thefts and the forgery.
He stated that from September 2007 his gambling addictions took over his life. He described himself as a different person to the public and that he led a double life one which involved theft to fund his gambling addiction and the other which involved promoting the school and its activities. Following discovery of the theft he resigned as principal of the school.
He confirmed to the Gardai that he had been admitted to the Rutland Centre for treatment. It seems clear that all the monies were expended on gambling and the accused had no money of any consequence in his own bank account.
It is reported that he was as cooperative as he could be with the Gardai and was very remorseful. At the time he was arrested, he was working in a school in Carlow on an annual contract. He has a high profile locally with the GAA club being a coach of some senior teams.
The court has been furnished with a victim impact statement from Father Paddy Byrne the chairperson of the board of management. He describes how they were deeply disappointed and distressed as a result of the theft of monies from the school by the accused.
He stated that when Mr McNulty was appointed principal, he had provided the selection panel with exemplary references from previous employments. He also stated that his professional academic qualifications were excellent. He describes how it was a huge shock to the board to discover financial impropriety on the part of the accused.
The board took immediate and appropriate steps to investigate this matter and to safeguard the interests of the school. Father Byrne describes the turbulent period that followed the discovery of the theft and how the school staff and management worked tirelessly and effectively to ensure that school could continue to function in its task of caring for and educating the pupils in its care.
Fr Byrne acknowledged the efforts of the staff and praised them for being able to maintain all services at the school despite the theft of funds by the accused. Father Byrne acknowledged that the accused had at that stage paid €23,600.21 in part payment of the liabilities that he owes to the school. He further stated that the board of management were seeking full restitution of all monies owed to the school.
In the final paragraph of the victim impact statement Father Byrne acknowledged that the entire episode was a tragedy in the context of Mr McNulty's gambling addiction. He described the accused as a dynamic and capable young principal who was popular and well regarded by the school community and beyond. He noted that his addiction to gambling had effectively brought an end to his promising career as principal at great personal cost to himself and his family.
It has to be said that the attitude of Father Byrne and the board of management is more than fair. The court can fully appreciate how a cloud of suspicion would descend on all members of the board when financial impropriety of the type, which the accused had engaged in, is exposed.
It has to be recognised that members of boards of management act in a voluntary capacity and from the highest of motives. Their mission is to help and assist school management and staff in delivering services to the pupils. The board of management are also in charge of governance and accordingly when financial irregularities occur, they are in the firing line.
The actions of the accused represented a gross breach of trust not only to Father Byrne but to the entire board of management,staff pupils and parents.
In determining sentence in this case the court has to look at all of the aggravating factors and mitigating factors. In addition to that the court must impose a sentence that is fair and proportionate and reflects the gravity of offending and culpability of the accused. The court must also ensure that the sentence imposed at fair and proportionate and takes cognizance of the five pillars of sentencing namely protection of the public, punishment, deterrence, restitution and rehabilitation.
The period of time over which the thefts took place which is in excess of two years together with the amount of money stolen are both extremely aggravating factors.
It is clear that there was premeditation involved in the thefts. Furthermore the thefts represented a gross breach of trust and of the duty of care owed by the accused in his capacity as principal to the students, staff board of management and parents of St Francis School.
In addition to this the theft of funds from the school which is run to educate some of the most vulnerable children in our society is a further aggravating factor. The stress and trauma that the theft of the funds caused to the staff students and board of management is a further aggravating factor. The fact that the thefts took place while the school was in the course of acquiring new premises compounds matters.
It is clear that the accused gave no thought whatsoever to the consequences of his actions and the negative impact they would have on the finances and reputation of the school. By his actions the accused let down all of the stakeholders in the school.
The forging of the signature of Father Byrne on 48 cheques is a further hugely aggravating factor. The accused knew from the start that his actions are wrong and still he persisted with them. The probation report has assessed the accused at moderate risk of reoffending and the factors that he has to address are his gambling addiction, his employment status, his impulsivity, deficits on consequential thinking, financial difficulties, emotional immaturity and personal issues.
The early plea of guilt saved the state the time cost and expense of a criminal trial and is therefore worthy of mitigation.
The immediate admissions made by the accused when confronted by Father Burns together with his fulsome cooperation with the Gardai and his expressions of remorse are again all mitigating factors the court to take into account.
The efforts made at restitution are also worthy of mitigation. The accused has to date paid almost €50,000 of the funds that were stolen and has undertaken to reimburse the balance as soon as he is in a position to do so.
He has indicated that he will repay what was stolen irrespective of whether he receives a custodial sentence are not because he feels morally bound to make restitution. These acknowledgements by the accused to make restitution and the efforts that he has gone to, to do so to date are again worthy of mitigation.
The accused has made no effort to minimise his culpability in relation to this matter. He acknowledges that what he did was wrong and he acknowledges that he has to pay the price for his offending.
It is clear from the probation report that the accused was in the throes of a gambling addiction when he committed these offences. He was so consumed by his addiction to gambling that he sacrificed everything including his reputation job and marriage in order to feed his gambling habit.
It was only after he was treated in the Rutland Centre that he began to come to terms with his addiction and to deal with it. Even with that he did have a relapse following his release from the Rutland Centre however thankfully it was a short relapse and for the last two and half years that he has kept his addiction under control and has not gambled.
He continues to attend gamblers anonymous and knows that his addiction is something that he will have to deal with every day for the rest of his life. A gambling addiction is like alcoholism, the only cure for it is abstinence and it appears that the accused is motivated to abstain from gambling for the rest of his life. This has to be a hopeful sign for the future and should considerably reduce his risk of reoffending.
The accused is aware of the shame that his offending has brought not alone on him and his family but also on his profession. It is noted that since the charges were preferred against the accused he has been suspended from his current teaching job and it seems clear that there is no prospect of the accused ever being able to hold a principalship again.
Indeed there has to be a serious question mark over his ability to continue teaching as doubtless the Teaching Council will be investigating the matter and could well make an order prohibiting him from teaching going forward. Even if the Teaching Council allows him to continue teaching, he is with these convictions going to have it very difficult to obtain a job in education.
It is noted that the accused tragically lost his brother who died by suicide in 2010 and who like the accused had a dreadful gambling addiction. The accused knows the detrimental impact that gambling has brought to his life and to the life of his family.
The accused enjoys the support of his family who are highly regarded and very decent people. In addition to this he is a well recognised and respected GAA coach and again his offending has brought his reputation in that area into disrepute.
It is noted that the accused has a four-year-old son and obviously his incarceration is going to negatively impact on his relationship with his son and again that is a significant punishment in and of itself and something the court must factor into its considerations.
Mr Kelly counsel for the accused has submitted that the accused was in psychological collapse when he committed the offending. He makes the point that he was always going to be caught and that he made no effort to cover his tracks. He describes the forging of Father Burns' signature as childish although I have to say that I consider that action to be particularly sinister.
The court has been furnished with a number of testimonials which speak highly as to the character of the accused and in particular his abilities as a GAA coach and teacher. Mr Kelly stated that the accused hoped to pay back in full all monies owed to St Francis school within a year and he was requesting that the court impose a non-custodial sentence.
In determining sentence in this case the court has to balance the needs of the victim herein the school against the needs of society and the needs of the accused. Bearing in mind that each of the offences carries a maximum sentence of 10 years and taking into account that the offending went on for over two years and involved 381 separate offences with a total loss to the school in excess of 100,000, am satisfied that the offending in this case ranks at the upper range and does before mitigation attractive a sentence of nine years.
Taking into account the mitigation and in particular the plea of guilty the efforts made at restitution, the expression of remorse, the lack of previous convictions and the loss of his career, marriage and reputation the court is prepared to reduce that sentenced to six years.
Accordingly the court is imposing a sentence of six years in prison and in order to foster and encourage the rehabilitation of the accused the court will suspend the final four years and six months for a period of seven years on the following conditions;
1. That the accused enter into a bond of €500 euro to keep the peace and be a good behaviour for a period of seven years of post-release.
2.That the accused submit himself to supervision by the probation service for a period of 12 months post-release and follows all directions given him by the probation service in dealing with his gambling addictions and his offending behaviour.
3.That the accused pay a sum of €60,000 to St Francis School by three annual instalments of €20,000 the first instalment repaid on the first anniversary of his release from prison and the second to be paid on the second anniversary of his release from prison and the third instalment to be paid on the third anniversary of his release from prison.
4.That the accused continue to attend meetings of gamblers anonymous and refrain from any gambling or gaming activity.
I am imposing the sentence and count one and a marking the other charges proved taken into consideration.
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