Disgraced solicitor who defrauded community group and attacked property spared jail
A disgraced Co. Down councillor who defrauded his local community group and used a hammer to break his neighbour's property escaped jail today (thurs) when his seven month jail term was suspended.
Suspending the term for three years at Downpatrick Magistrates Court, District Judge Greg McCourt warned Patrick Joseph Clarke (41) that if he committed any further offences or breached his probation order again, "rest assured...you will go to prison and you will start with seven months in addition to whatever other penalty."
Today's hearing marks the end of tumultuous period for the Newry and Mourne District Councillor who sits as an independant having previously been elected with the Alliance Party.
Clarke, from Mill Hill Court in Castlewellan, had three cases before the court today (Thursday) relating to crimes of fraud by abuse of position, criminal damage, possessing a weapon, namely a hammer with intent to cause criminal damage and breaching the terms of a probation and community service order which was previously imposed for a further offence of fraud by abuse of position.
Opening the cases against Clarke, a prosecuting lawyer described how the disgraced councillor defrauded £750 from the Dundrum Village Association in September 2014 by lodging a cheque from the Housing Executive meant for the village group, into his own account.
That offence came to light on 3 September last year and when cops arrested and interviewed Clarke almost three weeks later, he made "full admissions."
It was in that time period, on 5 September the court heard, when cops had been called to a different incident close to Clarke's home when they heard "raised voices from the communal stairwell" and when they went to investigate, Clarke's neighbour claimed he had "forced his way in" and armed with a hammer, had smashed a ceramic cup.
Arrested and interviewed over that matter, Clarke again admitted what he had done.
Previous courts have heard how the councillor's breach of probation was a result of him failing to turn up for community service work in an order imposed for a different fraud in June last year.
Clarke admitted he had swindled almost £2,000 from the Drumaroad community regeneration scheme and a prosecuting lawyer described how Clarke 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.
Cops 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.
Also in the last year, Clarke was handed a year on probation after he admitted drunkenly sexually assaulting a woman at a Christmas function in the Slieve Donard Hotel when he was trying to chat her up.
In court today (Thurs) defence barrister Niamh McCartney said Clarke had repaid all the monies he had stolen, was now re-engaging with probation which was helping him to face up to his mental health difficulties and issues arising from his childhood and had been "free from police attention."
She said he was "deeply regretful" for defrauding the Dundrum community group which had been as a result of him "succumbing to temptation" while in financial dire straits but which he conceded was a breach of trust and "completely and utterly wrong."
In relation to the incident with his neighbour, Ms McCartney said Clarke similarly accepted "it shouldn't have happened" but t that in the face of the man "repeatedly ringing him...he snapped and went up to confront this individual."
The lawyer said Clarke was continuing to work with the probation service under two orders, one valid to June and the other to August, both of which he was finding beneficial.
Imposing the suspended jail term, Judge McCourt said he was "pleased to see that you have taken the benefit of probation" and because that was the case, "courts will always support people who take" such benefit.
"You hopefully now are on the straight and narrow for the rest of your life rather than getting involved in fraud or anything else," said the judge but he warned Clarke that "if you don't take the benefit, you go to prison."
"It's in your hands but hopefully you won't be back here," Judge McCourt told Clarke.