A former primary school principal who was awarded an MBE by the Queen for services to education avoided being sent to jail today for a “series of serious financial misdemeanours”.
Sentencing former Dromara Primary School headmaster Stanley Poots to 18 months in prison, which was suspended for three years, Judge Patrick Lynch QC told the 71-year-old he would be remembered as the “principal convicted of fraud” rather than for all the good deeds he carried out over a career spanning decades.
Poots, whose address was given c/o Dromara Primary School on the Hillsborough Road in Dromara, appeared at Craigavon Crown Court where he admitted a total of 14 charges including fraud by false representation, false accounting and forgery.
The court heard Poots admitted a series of offences between October 2006 and November 2011 including:
• forging the signature of the school’s Board of Governors to secure a pay rise for himself;
• using funds from the school’s account to pay for trees on his property to be pruned;
• forging the signature of a fellow primary school principal to gain funds for a project;
• falsifying a Big Lottery Fund application form.
The total money involved amounted to around £15,000, and Poots has made available just over £11,500 to be paid in compensation to those affected.
Outlining the Crown case against Poots, prosecuting barrister Nicola Auret said that as headmaster of the primary school he had responsibility for the day-to-day running of arrangements of the school budget.
Poots offending began to emerge in August 2011 when he was retiring and the incoming principal began attending the school to familiarise himself with staff and school systems.
As part of the handover, the new headmaster became the new signatory of the Dromara Primary School Fund account. Several days after taking up his new post, the new principal was contacted by the Southern Education and Library Board about what appeared to be an irregularity concerning a payment.
An investigation was launched and it emerged that money was being withdrawn from the school account. Poots’ home was subsequently searched during the course of the investigation and the account’s chequebook was found.
One of the charges relates to £800 which was withdrawn from the school account in October 2011 – months after he was no longer principal. Poots later claimed he intended to use the money to pay people who had helped him over the years such as bus drivers.
Ms Auret told the court that another offence Poots admitted was forging documents in order to obtain a pay increase for himself. In May 2010, documents were provided to the South Eastern Education and Library Board, including a letter purporting to be signed by the school’s Board of Governor’s recommending a pay increase for Poots.
Poots later admitted he had forged the signature, while it emerged that no such discussion about a pay rise had ever taken place.
Another offence he admitted was making a false representation to the Big Lottery Fund to develop a nature area in the school’s grounds. The court heard that whilst some work was undertaken, fictitious invoices were submitted.
He also admitted using £500 of school funds to pay for the pruning of trees on his property.
Ms Auret said that whilst she acknowledged that Poots came before the court at the age of 71 with no previous convictions, he had committed a “gross breach of trust in that the defendant abused his position as a school principal”.
She also said Poots offending was “not a one-off” but was carried out over a period of around five years.
Defence barrister Sam Magee said his client was a man of 71, a father of four and a grandfather of nine. Saying it was a “great shame” that he had “blotted his copybook”, the barrister said Poots is a man who will never be before the court again.
Mr Magee said Poots had “tarnished what has been an otherwise distinguished career spanning almost five decades” which included an honour from the Queen for services to education.
The barrister also said Poots will now be remembered for the matters before court as opposed to work he has undertaken not just in the school but the wider community.
Regarding the offending itself, Mr Magee said it wasn’t the case that money was being used for projects that were not carried out, adding on some occasions he “took it upon himself to sign an application for grants on behalf of others”.
Saying “the manner in which he conducted business was not always in an honest fashion”, Mr Magee said it was his client’s case that a majority of the time he felt he was acting in the best interests of the school and wider community.
Passing sentence, Judge Lynch told Poots “your good character has been besmirched and you will be remembered as the principal convicted of fraud rather than for the various good deeds you have done for others”.