The former chief of a prominent animal charity in Northern Ireland who pleaded guilty to fraud has received a suspended sentence.
Stephen Philpott, 55, of Ashgrove Road, Newry, was sentenced to nine months suspended for two years at Newry Crown Court on Monday.
In September, Philpott admitted abusing his position by obtaining rental payments for a property owned by the charity in Bessbrook, Co Armagh.
It belonged to the Ulster Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (USPCA), of which Philpott was chief executive.
The offences took place over a seven-year period between January 2007 and November 2014.
Dressed in a dark suit and wearing black rimmed glasses, Philpott made no reaction as Judge Gordon Kerr QC issued the sentence and replied simply “yes, your honour” when asked if he understood.
During the brief sentencing hearing on Monday morning, Judge Kerr outlined that Philpott had been involved with the charity for 25 years and during his time as chief executive had been a “high-profile leader”.
The judge said he accepted Philpott had at times placed himself at risk in that role by opposing illegal animal sports such as badger baiting.
Philpott was charged in relation to having obtained rental payments but “failed to account for the said payments and failed to bring notice of the said payments to the attention of the USPCA, with the intention, by means of the abuse of that position to make a gain for yourself or another or to cause loss to the USPCA or to expose the USPCA to a risk of a loss”.
The court heard the rental income was £400 per month and the total amount unaccounted for over the offending period was £40,000.
That sum has since been repaid to the charity.
Philpott changed his plea to guilty in September ahead of a trial.
Judge Kerr said Philpott had accepted “with a degree of reluctance” that his activity had been fraudulent and assessed him as being at a “medium risk of reoffending”.
He described the main aggravating factors as being the abuse of position and taking money from a charity.
The judge said the custodial threshold had been met but took into account the guilty plea, that restitution had been achieved, several good character references and medical evidence that Philpott was suffering from a serious condition, details of which he said he would not disclose in court.
Following the summing up, Judge Kerr asked Philpott to stand before telling him he was sentencing him to nine months in prison, suspended for two years.
Philpott thanked the judge after being told he could leave.
Outside court, Philpott made no comment when approached by reporters as he departed.
Staff from the USPCA were also in court for the sentencing.
USPCA chairwoman Helen Wilson said the decision of the court “brings closure to a challenging period in the history of the USPCA, a respected and valued charity whose trust was ruthlessly abused by its most senior executive”.
“As chair I wish to thank all those involved in the investigation and prosecution of the offences,” she said.
“Their diligence was key to the events that culminated in today’s sentencing.
“We also owe a debt of gratitude to our members for their unwavering support.
“Throughout this lengthy process, the board, staff and volunteers of the USPCA continued to fulfil the charity’s pledge to protect and relieve the suffering of animals.
“Far from being distracted by events, several initiatives that significantly enhance the range of our charitable services were introduced.
“I look forward confidently today, in the knowledge that the USPCA is in good shape, under new leadership and focused on its core purpose - the protection of all animals.”
Detectives from PSNI’S Economic Crime Unit have welcomed the conviction.
They said that during Mr Philpott’s time as Chief Executive of the USPCA, the 55-year-old used his position of trust to defraud the organisation of over £40,000 over a period of eight years.
Police noted he was sentenced to nine months imprisonment, suspended for two years and has paid back £40,000 to the charity.
Detective Chief Inspector Ian Wilson said: “This was a complex investigation by detectives from PSNI’s Economic Crime Unit who worked tirelessly to bring Stephen Philpott to court for his dishonesty.
“During his time as Chief Executive of the USPCA, Mr Philpott was financially responsible for the USPCA estate which included a Bessbrook property which was rented out to a tenant by the charity. Over the course of eight years, Mr Philpott received rental payments amounting to over £40,000 yet this money was never received by the USPCA. In an attempt to cover his tracks Mr Philpott claimed that the money was used to purchase goods and services for the charity but records showed that the items were actually paid for by money from the USPCA’s bank account.
“Despite having responsibility for ensuring the financial wellbeing of the charity, Mr Philpott blatantly abused his position and the trust that was placed in him, deceiving his colleagues in a bid to satisfy his own greed and fraudulently receive large amounts of money.
“Mr Philpott’s dishonest behaviour prevented the USPCA from receiving substantial funds; funds which could have been used to prevent cruelty and provide care for abandoned animals. Despite his role as Chief Executive of the USPCA at the time, it is clear that Mr Philpott did not subscribe to the values of the charity and chose to profit significantly at the expense of suffering animals in need of help.
“We will relentlessly pursue anyone who seeks to abuse a trusted position to commit fraud.”