Belfast Telegraph

Northern Ireland accountant stole £120k from his Freemason lodge

By John Cassidy

A former senior member of the Freemasons was jailed on Wednesday for a year after he admitted stealing over £120,000 from his own lodge.

Bankrupt accountant William Stanley Murphy (63), of Broomhill Park, Magheralin, Co Down, was told by a judge at Belfast Crown Court that he would spend a further year on supervised licence following his release from prison for his "breach of trust''.

Belfast Recorder Judge David McFarland told Murphy that he found "no exceptional circumstances'' regarding his physical and mental health that would allow him to suspend his 12 months in prison.

In May this year, the defendant had pleaded not guilty to a total of 15 charges when he appeared at the same court for an arraignment hearing.

But three months later, Murphy was re-arraigned on all the charges he faced and pleaded guilty to one charge of fraud by abuse of position and further entered guilty pleas to 14 counts of stealing a total of £121,504.3 from the Provincial Grand Lodge of Antrim, which previously had its headquarters in Rosemary Street in Belfast city centre.

The fraud by abuse of position took place over a five year period dating back a decade.

Prosecution barrister Kate McKay told the court that in September 2014 a member of the Provincial Grand Lodge of Antrim made a complaint to police that Murphy had abused his position of trust while treasurer of the lodge and stole over £121,000.

Records showed that over the five period from June 2006 and March 2011 that a total of 14 cheques were used by Murphy to defraud the lodge.

The court was told that the fraud came to light in 2012 when the Provincial Grand Lodge of Antrim changed auditors who conducted a review of its financial affairs.

The cheques used in the fraud needed two signatures but for ease of business, the court heard, they were already pre-signed by another member of the lodge and Murphy would then sign his name on the cheque and use them to make fraudulent payments.

Ms McKay said that one cheque for over £24,000 was paid by Murphy to HM Revenue and Customs to settle a civil tax liability to Dunmurray-based Nulife Engineering.

She told the judge that Murphy was a company secretary of NuLife Engineering but held no shares within the firm.

Judge McFarland heard that HMRC still hold that money in account and it was "at their discretion'' whether or not to pay it back to the Provincial Grand Lodge of Antrim.

Murphy had limited assets, said the prosecutor, who was bankrupted in October 2014 and lived in a one-bedroom flat in Magheralin valued at £28,000.

The court heard that during the course of two police interviews, Murphy denied carrying out the fraud, citing his "mental health issues'' and could not recall the matters.

However, he later admitted to police that he "made a mistake'' in using a lodge cheque to settle the £24,000 tax bill owed to HMRC.

Ms McKay said the main aggravating features were that it was a "breach of trust case'' as Murphy was placed in a position of trust by the Provincial Grand Lodge of Antrim and that there was "some degree of sophistication'' used by Murphy to carry out the fraud.

Defence barrister Patrick Taggart told the court that Murphy was estranged from his wife, had "only one friend in life'', lived alone in a one bedroom flat in Magheralin was now an "ostracised individual'' because of his offending.

He said that Murphy had been "highly stressed'' over court proceedings, had ongoing physical and mental health problems, including suffering from depression and "suicidal ideations''.

The defence barrister added that a doctor's report had "raised concerns about the effect custody would have on him'' because of mental health issues

Stating that Murphy came before the court with a clear criminal record, Mr Taggart said that "from the get go he was not using the money to fund a lavish lifestyle''.

Judge McFarland said that "it would appear to have been lax procedures'' by the Provincial Grand Lodge of Antrim which allowed Murphy to write his signature on pre-signed cheques to carry out his fraud.

He told Murphy: "This gave you substantial power and you used that power in the breach of trust placed in you as treasurer of the lodge and in one case used that power to write a cheque to settle a tax matter on behalf of Nulife Engineering with HM Revenue and Customs.

"This is clearly a breach of trust case and there was some degree of sophistication, however, when you stand back and  look at it, the fraud was always going to be detected and the trail would lead back to your door.

"The custody threshold has been met and I do not believe there are exceptional circumstances in this case that would allow me to suspend a prison sentence so the appropriate sentence is one of immediate custody.''

The Belfast Recorder sentenced Murphy two years concurrent on all 15 charges, stating 50 per cent would be spent in custody with the remainder to spent on licence following his release from prison.

The judge also made a confiscation order for £28,000 and gave Murphy six months to pay back the money to the Provincial Grand Lodge of Antrim.

Belfast Telegraph Digital

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