Office manager stole £85,000 from Co Down travel agency

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The former director of a Co Down travel agency founded by the parents of Ulster golfer David Feherty stole over £85,000 from the business to pay for his “high lifestyle”.

Neil Alexander Robert Walker, 46, of Railway View Street in Bangor, pleaded guilty at Downpatrick Crown Court to 11 counts of theft and one charge of false accounting.

The court heard that the offences related to an 11-year period from 2003 to 2014 while he was employed as a £23,000-a-year office manager and non-executive director of Bangor-based Feherty Travel.

Prosecution counsel James Johnston told Judge Brian Sherrard that the offences came to light in 2014 when the company noticed a number of “financial irregularities in a customer file”.

When confronted by the owners of the business and an accountant, Walker admitted stealing £45,000 over a six-year period. He resigned his position and promised to pay back the money.

The court was told Feherty Travel then hired an IT specialist to examine the computerised records of the business and it was revealed Walker had “stolen considerably more than the £45,000 he admitted to taking”.

“As a result,” said Mr Johnston, “the matter was reported to the police who carried out an investigation into the computerised accounts system, customer files, his own bank account and his credit cards over an 11-year period.

“It transpired that the methods he used to steal the money and cover his tracks, if I can put it that way, included writing company cheques to pay for credit card bills. From 2006 to 2014, a total of 14 cheques were used to pay off credit card debts of £39,000, with the largest cheque written out for almost £6,500.

“Other cheques were used to pay for personal holidays, to pay for his Phoenix Gas bill at home and new tyres for his then wife’s car.”

Mr Johnston said Walker was one of three signatories to the company cheque book and for “expedience purposes’’ one of the other co-signators had pre-signed the cheques which allowed Walker to write out cheques.

“He then created fictitious entries in the cheque book stubs while linking those entries to fictitious refunds on customers’ files.”

Judge Sherrard heard that Walker also stole commissions due to Feherty Travel on holidays booked by customers, and sold holidays to family members “at cost price” in contravention of company policy.

Walker also moved “paper sums of money’’ across various files and “disguised those payments as fictitious refunds to particular clients to cover up any missing cash he had already taken’’.

At police interview Walker said that he had got into credit card difficulties 10 years earlier and that the “debts got on top of him and his pride would not allow him to seek help”.

Despite promising to pay back £45,000 after his resignation, the court was told no monies were initially paid back.

Feherty Travel then issued a High Court writ seeking “repayment of a higher amount as a result of their internal investigations’’.

But the matter was settled for an agreed figure of £90,000 following the defendant’s divorce and ancillary relief proceedings.

The court heard Walker had no previous conviction and was assessed as a low likelihood of reoffending.

A defence barrister said father-of-three Walker had shown “genuine remorse, embarrassment and a great deal of shame’’ for his actions.

The barrister said that one explanation for Walker’s offending was that he was “suffering from compulsive buying disorder’’ which he said started as a comfort mechanism after his eldest child was diagnosed with leukemia.

The defence counsel urged the court not to send Walker to jail, saying that the owners of Feherty Travel had expressed that view in a letter to the court.

Judge Sherrard said he wanted time to consider all the papers in the case and adjourned sentencing until next week. He released Walker on continuing bail ahead of sentence.