A disgraced Co Down councillor who swindled almost £2,000 from a community regeneration scheme escaped jail on Thursday with a probation and community service combination order.
Ordering 40-year-old Patrick Joseph Clarke to spend a year on probation and complete 100 hours of community service at Downpatrick Magistrates Court, District Judge Alan White told the former Alliance Party councillor his offences “crosses the custody threshold, be in no doubt about that”.
He told Clarke, who was sacked from the Alliance Party and now sits as an independant councillor, the series of frauds were aggravated because they had been committed over a prolonged period against a public organisation, thereby “causing loss to the community” but that he was giving him credit for pleading guilty and his clear criminal record.
Earlier a prosecuting lawyer described how Clarke, with an address on Main Street in Dundrum, had been made chairman of the Drumaroad Community Regeneration Limited company whose purpose was to raise funds to finance the rebuilding of a local church hall.
As such, Clarke took control of the various documents and chequebooks “for safe keeping” but in November 2012, a fellow director discovered there was no money in the account.
Police who investigated found that nine cheques had been forged and the signatures of other directors had been forged by Clarke said the lawyer, adding that in total, the politician had swindled £1,964 from the community organisation.
Police searched Clarke’s home and officers who seized various financial documents and chequebooks discovered that in addition to forging the cheques, Clarke had created false invoices in an effort to cover up the frauds.
Arrested and interviewed Clarke initially denied doing anything wrong but during later questioning, made “full admissions” to what he had done, eventually pleading guilty to eight charges of committing fraud by abusing the position he held with the Drumaroad Community Regeneration Limited and five further charges of fraud by false representation, all committed on dates between 30 May and 16 August 2010.
Defence barrister Niamh McCartney said Clarke had already repaid £1,000 and that a similar amount was being held by the solicitors to repay the swindled monies in full.
She said he had used the money to “pay for rent and other personal items,” adding that at the time, he had been overindulging in alcohol.
“He saw an opportunity and he took it,” said the lawyer, actions which had left Clarke “very remorseful and regretful...he accepts it was absolutely wrong to take the money.”
Imposing the combination order and ordering Clarke to pay the rest of the outstanding money, Judge White said the CSO was a “much mire constructive way” to punish him instead of sending him to jail.