Woman who stole from hepatitis C support group is jailed

Bernadette Warnock (63) must pay HSE compensation over theft of €116,000

Bernadette Warnock (63), of Garretstown, Dunshaughlin, Co Meath, arrives at the Dublin Circuit Criminal Court. File photograph: Collins Courts

Bernadette Warnock (63), of Garretstown, Dunshaughlin, Co Meath, arrives at the Dublin Circuit Criminal Court. File photograph: Collins Courts

 

A court has ruled that the Health Service Executive (HSE) must receive €63,500 in compensation from the former director of a hepatitis C support group who stole more than €116,000 from the group.

Bernadette Warnock (63) was jailed for two years for theft and fraud on Tuesday, after Judge Melanie Greally adjourned the imposition of the sentence last month to allow her to attend a medical appointment.

Warnock stole the money while operating the finances of Positive Action Ltd, which was set up in 1994 to help women who had contracted hepatitis C through contaminated blood products in maternity hospitals.

Warnock, of Garretstown, Dunshaughlin, Co Meath, had pleaded guilty at Dublin Circuit Criminal Court to 71 counts of theft and fraud in relation to the organisation between 2009 and 2011, totalling €116,226.

Positive Action had 730 members and received the majority of its funding from the HSE. It was closed down in 2014 following a HSE audit.

Warnock, who herself suffers from hepatitis C after contracting it at the age of 24, has four previous convictions for forging cheques from her employer in 1990.

The judge had adjourned the case last month after hearing that Warnock’s health had deteriorated in recent months, leaving her housebound, and a stay was put on her sentence to allow her attend a hospital appointment.

On Tuesday, her barrister, Ronan Kennedy BL, said his client wished to express her gratitude to the court for allowing her to attend that appointment.

He said Warnock was now on medication that should stabilise her health.

The judge said she wished that hepatitis C sufferers would benefit directly from the compensation raised.

She said she was satisfied, having heard evidence from Michelle Tait, the national co-ordinator of hepatitis C services within the HSE, that if an order directed the money go to Ms Tait’s division, the former members of the Positive Action group would benefit from it.

“I appreciate that there may be a more direct route, but this seems to be the safest way,” the judge said.

Ms Tait told the court that her division ring-fences €25 million in its budget each year to provide various medical services and supports to the 1,350 hepatitis C sufferers in the country.

She said the funding is allocated to three organisations that provide the services.

Ms Tait said her division of the HSE would undertake to ensure that the €63,500 would go towards supporting these three organisations.

Liquidation

The court heard in earlier sentence hearings that Positive Action was in liquidation, with one of the main creditors being the HSE.

The judge said the offences were “an enormous betrayal of trust”, adding: “Acts like these cast doubt and suspicion over the charity sector.”

She said the court could not disregard the fact that in the midst of her offending, Warnock had performed much laudable work.

The judge imposed a three-year sentence, but suspended the final 12 months.

Mr Kennedy had handed in testimonials from family and friends on Warnock’s behalf.

He said he had been instructed to offer an apology on her behalf and said that Warnock recognised the consequences and impact of her actions.

“It is an understatement to say she is deeply ashamed,” he told the judge.

He said Warnock did not shy away from the aggravating features in this case, such as the sum of money involved, the protracted time period, the breach of trust and the fact it involved public money.

He said that it was not a sophisticated crime and she had made no real effort to cover her trail.

He said she had put in place measures to prevent her taking further money before the offences came to light and had made full admissions.

Mr Kennedy said it was difficult to see how she could have been more co-operative.

He handed in medical reports and said she came before the court with health issues which had significantly deteriorated over the past few months.

Counsel asked that she be given credit for her effort to rehabilitate over the last two years during intensive therapy.