Former branch secretary receives a suspended jail sentence for misusing branch funds

Case Name

South Australia Police v Stephen Brennan (Magistrates’ Court of South Australia) (AMC-15-8841)

What were the issues? 

A former branch secretary of a union was convicted of a criminal offence after he fraudulently claimed reimbursements from the registered organisation for personal and family expenses he was not entitled to receive.

The offending was found to be serious and a repeated breach of trust of the registered organisation and its members. 

What happened? 

The branch secretary fraudulently claimed $5,968.20 in reimbursements from the union including for motor vehicle expenses for his spouse's car, and personal expenses such as the purchase of a herbal product, payment of a chiropractor and gym membership. 

Those reimbursements were paid by cheque from the union’s bank account requiring two signatories, where the branch secretary was one of the people who authorised payment. The branch secretary pleaded guilty to 12 counts of wilfully and with intent to defraud falsifying accounts in the possession of the union.

What can officers and organisations learn from this? 

Organisations should have and implement robust policies and procedures to prevent and detect any improper spending of members’ money. Those policies and procedures should ensure that a person should have no role in approving their own expenses.

Officers risk significant penalties and compensation orders, including criminal penalties, if they misuse the organisation’s funds for their personal gain. 

What did the judge say? 

In her remarks on the penalty, Magistrate Sutcliffe referred to the responsibility of senior office holders to uphold the trust given to them by members of the organisation:

You committed the offences when in a position of trust and by doing so you failed in your responsibility to the Union and in turn vulnerable Union members. 

Magistrate Sutcliffe found the need for general deterrence required that convictions were recorded ‘to give effect to the primary purpose of sentencing, which is the protection of the community and to reassure the community that such conduct won’t be tolerated.’  

What was the outcome and the penalty? 

The Magistrate sentenced the branch secretary to a five-month prison sentence suspended for 12 months. 

The reduced sentence took into consideration:

  • the gravity of the behaviour
  • the circumstances and passage of time since the offending
  • the branch secretary’s rehabilitation, remorse and genuine contrition
  • his guilty plea
  • his intention to pay reparation to the union (which the Court ordered him to pay).