A woman who stole €760,000 from an education authority and blew it on expensive handbags and clothing has been jailed for two years.
Judge John Aylmer said Tara Sweeney’s crimes were “systematic and premeditated” after she stole the money from her employer the Donegal Education Centre.
A shaken Ms Sweeney held her teenage son’s hand tightly as she waited for her case to be called at Donegal Circuit Court.
The 47-year-old had pleaded guilty to stealing the cash over a six-year period.
However, the court was told that many of the items were never even taken out of their packaging and lay in a room at the 47-year-old’s house.
Ms Sweeney was an accounts administrator at the centre in Donegal Town from 2009 until 2015 and had access to numerous bank accounts.
In 2015, a new director at the company became suspicious of large missing sums of money, an investigation was launched and Ms Sweeney, of The Glebe, Donegal Town, subsequently resigned from her post.
A subsequent search of her home by Gardai found a room full of black bags which continued documentation from the education centre.
An accountancy firm was drafted into and it showed electronic transfers into Ms Sweeney’s account in the sum of €760,000.
Further investigations showed that Ms Sweeney had spent much of the money on clothing, designer handbags, perfumes, jewelery with many high-end labels including Prada and Gucci.
Many of the handbags and clothing which was recovered were never even taken out of their packaging, the court heard.
She eventually pleaded guilty to 20 sample charges having originally faced 44 charges of theft.
Barrister for Ms Sweeney, Mr Peter Nolan told the court that the case and her actions have destroyed her life.
Since the case came to light, Ms Sweeney has received hate mail and is afraid to go out.
He said however, that she is in the process of selling her house which is worth €150,000 and the profit of between €60,000 to €70,000 will be paid back to the Donegal Education Centre.
Mr Nolan said “This has been a catastrophic event in her life. She has lost her house, lost her family, has no friends and is now on a pariah in the town of Donegal.”
He added that it was a sad and unusual case and that if there is any money recouped from the recovery of all the designer brands then perhaps that could be repaid also.
The court heard that Donegal Education Centre is also taking High Court proceedings against Ms Sweeney.
Judge Aylmer said there was also a serious breach of trust by Ms Sweeney against her employers.
He said it had been suggested that the thefts were as a result of a “compulsive addiction” but said there was no psychological or psychiatric evidence of this but it was rather a result of purchasing the goods to “improve low mood.”
He said however, that Ms Sweeney had no previous convictions and had been completely co-operative with Gardai.
He said the sale of her house would raise between €60,000 and €70,000 and that this would raise approximately 10% of the money she had stolen.
An application was also made to have the goods bought with the stolen money including the handbags and high-end clothing, as well as documentation handed over to the Donegal Education Centre.
He said the offence was well into the mid-range of such offences and merited a sentence of three years in prison.
However, because of the mitigating factors he would suspend the last twelve months.
Judge Aylmer said he had to consider suspending the entire sentence but added that because of the seriousness of the offences, it was beyond the threshold of suspending the balance of the two year sentence.