Belfast Telegraph

Northern Ireland travel agency boss stole £85k to pay for his 'lifestyle'

By John Cassidy

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 account, 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 at a cost of £5,000 to examine the computerised records of the business and it was revealed Walker had "stolen considerably more that 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 stolen commissions due to Feherty Travel on holidays booked by customers. "Instead of putting those payments into the company account,  he put the money into customer files to cover up cash he had previously taken from those same files. This was done to create the impression that the files were balanced in accountancy terms''.

He also sold holidays to family members "at cost price'' in contravention of company policy and then falsified the computer records therefore depriving the company of commission it was due on the holidays.

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''.

"This became cyclical in nature when a client opened a new account, he took money from that account to balance up another older account,'' explained the prosecutor

He also wrote out a cheque for £1,100 to petty cash and gave it to a junior member of staff to "cash that cheque while doing the daily bank lodgements. The junior member of staff didn't question the request and the defendant used that cash for his own purposes''.

Mr Johnston said Walker made "unauthorised payments'' on his company credit card to pay for dinners, concert tickets, hotel accommodation, rugby tickets but recorded these transactions as "legitimate company purposes on customer files''.

At police interview, Walker said that he had got into credit card difficulties ten years earlier and that the "debts got on top of him and his pride would not allow him to seek help, He instead wrote a company cheque to his credit card company and from there matters spiralled and his debts mounted''.

"He told detectives: 'I had this pie in the sky theory that I would get a windfall, that I would pay it all and move on'. He said things spiralled and he couldn't keep up with the lifestyle his then wife expected and used the money to buy clothes, pay credit cards and a degree of gambling.''

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 amount outstanding on these charges has now been repaid in full. So the amount this court has to deal with is the theft of £85,831.01p,'' said the prosecutor.

The court heard Walker had no previous conviction and was assessed as a low likelihood of re-offending''.

A defence barrister told the court that Walker's offending was a "egregious breach of trust'' given the substantial amount of money over the period of time involved and also the covering up of the thefts.

He said father-of-three Walker had shown "genuine remorse, embarrassment and a great deal of shame'' for his action and for the suffering he had caused his family and the owner of the business who he considered as his "second father''.

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.

He told the judge that Walker thought he could buy his way out of debts and had hoped to get a "windfall'' through buying lottery tickets, adding: "He was just kidding himself in a vain attempt to recover this money.''

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.

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