A former church warden has been ordered to pay back more than £35,000 after he forged signatures and falsified documents to steal grant money he had secured for the restoration of a Northumberland village church.
Steven Clark, 48, of Hill Top Cottage, Alnham, spent the cash he pocketed on private members’ clubs, train tickets, petrol and supermarket bills, as well as hundreds of pounds at the local butchers.
The married father-of-one took the money over a period of almost two years, after heading a project to transform St Michael and All Angels Church.
His deceit only came to light when church representative, Andrew Young, became concerned about items of expenditure that didn’t relate to church business, including 76 bottles of wine for the defendant’s house.
Clark pleaded guilty to fraud, having taken £35,690, between January 1, 2015, and November 27, 2016.
At a sentencing hearing at Newcastle Crown Court yesterday, Recorder Ray Singh said that Clark’s reputation was now in tatters and that there was no bigger breach of trust in these particular circumstances.
However, the court heard that Clark was in a position to pay back the full amount that he had defrauded.
He was given a two-year prison sentence, suspended for two years. Clark also needs to complete 240 hours of unpaid work and make a contribution to costs of £1,500. He was ordered to pay £35,690 in 28 days, or face going to prison for 18 months.
The court heard how Clark, who was church warden at the time, had taken it upon himself to apply for Lottery funding to restore the church, to transform it into a centre for information, learning and education in the community.
The church community was aware of his actions and happy for him to continue the project on his own, Prosecutor Andrew Finlay said.
The court heard that Clark opened an account – Alnham Church Restoration – at Lloyds Bank, and he had single access to it. He also had access to the Alnham Church bank account.
Through a range of applications, Clark managed to secure funding to the tune of £62,597, of which a total of £26,907 was used legitimately for the restoration project. But the remainder was siphoned off by Clark.
The Heritage Lottery Fund; Northumberland National Park; the Diocese of Newcastle; The Prince’s Countryside Fund; and Whittingham, Callaly and Alnham Parish Council were among the organisations to award funding.
The court heard, that, to secure the funds for his own gain, Clark falsified documents, faked signatures and wrote and cashed cheques before moving them to his own bank account.
He used the stolen money to pay for day-to-day items, such as fuel, but he also spent it on more lavish items, such as £800 at the local butchers, nearly £600 at Newcastle’s prestigious Northern Counties Club – one of the world’s oldest private members’ clubs – and almost £1,000 on train tickets.
He also splashed the cash at The Savile Club – a private members’ club in Mayfair, London – as well as just over £350 at The East India Club, in the heart of London’s clubland.
It also emerged that Clark took £2,165 from the church bank account for his own gain, forging the signature of the county signatory on 15 cheques to secure the cash.
Concluding, Mr Finlay said that Clark had abused his position of trust in a crime which took significant planning and occurred over a sustained period of time.
In a victim impact statement, Andrew Young said that Clark had, at first, shown himself to be a pillar of the local community, but had manipulated people over a protracted period of time, leaving those who trusted him feeling betrayed.
He added that, as a result of Clark’s crimes, one grant funder had withdrawn £10,000 from the restoration project.
In defence, the court heard that Clark had co-operated with the police, admitted what he had done and worked to find ways of paying back every penny of the cash that he had stolen.
Robert Woodcock QC said that his client could, ‘with a click of a button’, pay back the £35,690 to recompense those he had defrauded; something the defence described as ‘a rarity, if not a first’.
“Through his own efforts and to no small cost to himself, he is in the position to make the repayment and he will pay back into the pockets of those defrauded,” Mr Woodcock added.
The court heard that Clark had subsequently found employment and his employers had given a ‘glowing testimony of his value to them’.
Sentencing Clark, Recorder Singh said that he did not want the defendant to think that he had bought himself out of jail, because ‘you can’t recompense the loss of reputation’.
In a stern dressing down of Clark, Recorder Singh said: “Your reputation is now in tatters, the trust in you by the Alnham community and the church is broken, I anticipate forever, and that is through your own fault. The ramifications of this will be felt by you and your family, and that is through your greed.
“You were in a position of extreme trust, you were a sole signatory on the bank account. You went about obtaining money in a sophisticated way. Some of the money you obtained was used for legitimate purposes, but you also secured money by forging signatures to cash cheques to fund a lifestyle that you were, I anticipate, otherwise unlikely to afford, including private members’ clubs, expensive shopping trips and train journeys.
“It was money that should have been used legitimately for the church and there is no bigger breach of trust in these particular set of circumstances.
“This is not a victimless offence. The church will have to mend bridges because of your actions. The next time they apply for grants, the scrutiny will be immense.”
However, Recorder Singh did praise Clark for his honesty, once his offences came to light.
He added: “When interviewed, you did come clean. You knew you were dishonest and you had used the money for your personal benefit, but you co-operated.
“I do give you credit for your guilty plea. There is no doubt, however, that your culpability is high, you abused your position of power. It involved significant planning, it was sophisticated in nature and it was over a sustained period of time.
“You are in full-time employment, you can pay back every penny, you were of previous good character – although that has now gone – and why should your family suffer because of your actions. Every time you go to unpaid work, I hope you think about the damage you have caused.”