Court was right not to jail young footballer who stole to fund gambling

DPP felt court unduly lenient in giving Mark Hehir (27) community service for stealing €300,000 from employer to fund addiction

Counsel for the Director of Public Prosecutions, Lorcan Staines, submitted that although the scourge of gambling which afflicted Mark Hehir was “tragic”, it did not amount to an exceptional circumstance which justified community service or a suspended sentence.  File photograph: INPHO/Lorraine O’Sullivan

Counsel for the Director of Public Prosecutions, Lorcan Staines, submitted that although the scourge of gambling which afflicted Mark Hehir was “tragic”, it did not amount to an exceptional circumstance which justified community service or a suspended sentence. File photograph: INPHO/Lorraine O’Sullivan

 

An underage football star who admitted stealing €300,000 from his employer to fund a gambling addiction has been spared jail a second time, despite an appeal by prosecutors to imprison him.

Mark Hehir (27), from Kilgevrin, Tuam, Co Galway, had pleaded guilty to stealing the money from his former employers Galway City Bin company over a six-month period in 2016, after initially becoming addicted to online gambling on his phone while in secondary school.

Hehir was given a wholly suspended two-year sentence and ordered to undertake 240 hours of community service by Judge Rory McCabe at Galway Circuit Criminal Court in January. Judge McCabe also ordered Hehir to remain gambling free, not open a bookies account, continue to attend counselling and continue to pay €100 a week restitution.

The Director of Public Prosecutions sought a review of Hehir’s sentence on grounds that it was “unduly lenient”. However, the Court of Appeal upheld the Circuit Court judge’s decision on Tuesday.

He had captained Galway’s Under-21 All Ireland winning football team in 2011 scoring eight points, the Court of Appeal heard.

Restitution

Giving judgment in the three-judge court, Mr Justice John Hedigan said Hehir had been in full control of the City Bin Company’s accounts while employed there. Between April 20th, 2016, and September 22nd, 2016, Hehir transferred money electronically from the company’s account into his own personal account on 71 separate dates. The company ultimately reported a theft of €305,072.

The local bank manager contacted Hehir regarding irregularities in his personal account. He went to the bank and admitted to having committed the offences. His father was contacted who in turn alerted the City Bin Company about the missing money.

Hehir made full admissions to gardaí and stated that he had “stolen the money to fuel his gambling addiction with online bookies”. He made a payment to the company of €29,000 by way of restitution, having received financial aid from his parents.

A sum of €259,072 was owed to the company at the time of sentence, Mr Justice Hedigan said in his judgment.

After making full admissions, Hehir received treatment for his gambling addiction in Hope House, Co Mayo. At the time of sentence, he lived with his parents in Tuam and was in full time employment with a multinational medical devices company in Galway. He is currently repaying €100 a week to the bin company.

Mr Justice Hedigan said Hehir has engaged in restorative justice work and has substantial support from friends and family. He is heavily involved with the GAA and is described as being of good standing in the community.

Scourge of gambling

Counsel for the Director of Public Prosecutions, Lorcan Staines, submitted that although the scourge of gambling which afflicted Hehir was “tragic”, it did not amount to an exceptional circumstance which justified community service or a suspended sentence.

Mr Staines said gambling fraud cases were relatively common and all of the factors in Hehir’s case were “quite standard”. He said Hehir’s case was “absolutely devoid of exceptional factors”.

Mr Staines pointed to the need for deterrence: Where there is a high degree of planning and premeditation and where the offence is highly publicised, sentencing serves to deter possibly like minded persons from similarly offending.

A probation report stated that Hehir, who had no previous convictions, was unlikely to re-offend, took full responsibility for his actions and had shown remorse.

Counsel for Hehir, Bernard Madden SC, said his client was a first time offender who had been completely candid in totally accepting his guilt from the very beginning.

Mr Madden said the wholly exceptional circumstance here was Hehir’s addiction and the manner he was addressing it. Slamming the “jail door” on him was inappropriate because he would be better off outside prison than inside in dealing with his problems.

Mr Justice Hedigan said the offence involved a “very serious fraud by an employee who was in a position of trust”.

The sentencing judge considered the “nature of gambling and the danger of its online form”. He considered Hehir’s offending should be viewed in light of the addiction of gambling, a recognised psychological affliction.

In what was a “model of its kind”, Mr Justice Hedigan said the Circuit Court judge set out “carefully, succinctly but comprehensively, a list of factors that led him” to conclude that custody was “neither necessary not desirable”. He carefully balanced all the factors involved and “missed nothing”.

Allowing the sentencing judge a substantial margin of discretion, Mr Justice Hedigan, who sat with President of the Court of Appeal Mr Justice George Birmingham and Mr Justice John Edwards, said there appeared to be no basis upon which the court could intervene and the appeal was therefore dismissed.