A former star netballer who was raised as an outsider in an Aboriginal family before she tried to win their love by stealing hundreds of thousands of dollars from the Wadawurrung people has avoided jail time.
Kelly Howard, 45, who played for the Bungaree Football Netball Club, repeatedly broke down in tears in the County Court in Ballarat today as she pleaded guilty to defrauding the Wathaurung Aboriginal Corporation of more than $333,000.
She was volunteering as a bookkeeper in 2011 when she started to take advantage of the “vulnerable organisation” she helped found, transferring money into her own account and paying for a deposit on a house for her mother and dance classes for her daughter until an audit caught her red handed in 2016.
Crown prosecutor David O’Doherty read out a victim impact statement from Uncle Bryon Powell, who said the co-op relied on donations and was set up to look after the interests of the Wadawurrung people in western Victoria.
“She tried to buy her family’s love,” Mr Powell wrote.
“She was a trusted friend and adviser that the board held in high esteem … we are in shock ... especially when she stole the money to give to her own family.”
The court was told Howard was raised by her mother and Aboriginal step father, but she was emotionally abused as a child, with her step father drunkenly telling her they were not related when she was 12.
“She was raised as an Aboriginal but wasn't part of the tribe,” defence barrister Phil Dunn, QC, said.
“She’d be told you’re not Aboriginal, but you’ve got to say you’re Aboriginal.”
Mr Dunn pushed for a community corrections order to be imposed, arguing Howard used the stolen money to help her family and that her son was “terrified” at the prospect of her going to jail.
In sentencing, Judge Howard Mason accepted she did not steal to buy “overseas trips” and “Gucci handbags”, but he said a message of general deterrence must be sent to other bookkeepers and accountants in positions of power.
“In cases of white collar theft … very, very often you have people who otherwise are of excellent character,” he said.
“When they see an opportunity they unfortunately fall victim to it, and then they’re very sorry.”
However, Judge Mason also found Howard was suffering from serious mental health conditions as he placed her on a community corrections order for three years.
Howard has been stripped of her title as a chartered accountant, but the court was told she was continuing to do bookkeeping for private clients at a Victorian company.
She repaid the stolen money after selling her house.
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