When Bill Connellan’s sister Elizabeth visited him in jail in January he seemed “a bit like Toad of Toad Hall”.
Like Toad, Connellan had gone on a wild escapade. Only it wasn’t his friends he took for a ride, but the country’s largest bank.
Connellan, a loans officer with the National Australia Bank, cooked the books on his day job to feed his after-hours habit, a pokies addiction. Using breathtakingly simple scams, he extracted more than $1 million from his employer in less than two years.
Visiting her brother in jail just after his arrest, Elizabeth Fitzgerald found him “still very much in the performance and completely away with the fairies . . . He was very anxious to share the drama of being in jail”.
People such as Connellan, who was sentenced last week to five years’ jail, and Deidre Frederickson, a law clerk who stole $450,000 to feed her pokies habit, have highlighted the human cost of gambling.
Yesterday Frederickson was sentenced to five years in prison, with a minimum sentence of 30 months. At the same time, an extraordinary panel of people, including State Government ministers, the Reverend Tim Costello and industry figures such as Ross Wilson, the outgoing head of Tabcorp, met to discuss problem gambling.
Connellan, 44, is the youngest of six children, and his five elder brothers and sisters are all achievers. He had always tried to chase after their success, said his lawyer, Jack Rush. He used to big-note to his wife, Maddie, about his long absences from home, claiming he was doing important deals with clients.
He acted like an unfaithful husband, Mr Rush said, making up stories to cover his secret activities. He would claim he had been held up at rehearsals of the Gilbert and Sullivan opera society he loved, or that his car had broken down. With a flourish of life imitating farce, he once got out of trouble by telling his wife he had run over a pedestrian.
Mr Rush said: “It got to a stage where (he was gambling) six, seven days a week, on average four hours minimum a day, ranging up to 12 to 14 hours a day. It wasn’t infrequent that he would be going home at 7 o’clock in the morning, showering and then going to work, with the explanation that he had been with clients doing deals all night.”
Many of his “clients” were creatures of his own imagination. Connellan pleaded guilty to one charge of false accounting and five counts of obtaining a financial advantage by deception. Behind these counts lay two credit cards in a false name, 54 false bank loans and 40 false bank accounts. Connellan averaged a new loan every fortnight.
He was systematic. In April, 1999, he set up the first false bank account in the name of Robert John Quick. He had seen the name in a newspaper and chose it because they shared the same date of birth. He used the bank documents and cards from that account as identification to get a birth certificate in the same name. Then he used the birth certificate to rent a post office box that he used as the address for many of his fictitious clients.
He entered false loan applications into the bank’s “Autolock” system, knowing what assets and liabilities would be required to get an automatic approval from the computer. He was also meant to create a file for each loan and send it for checking to the lending services division. He did not.
As he drew on each loan, he sent some of the money to the Quick account for his own use. He would divert the rest to a false bank account in the same name as the false loan account and set up direct debits to make payments on the loan. He ultimately obtained $1,199,800, of which $244,563 went into repayments.
Withdrawals went straight from one machine to another. Connellan took money from automatic teller machines at gaming hotels and fed it instantly into the venues’ poker machines.
He bought himself nothing. His suits were his older brothers’ hand-me-downs. “This man was living in a rented house in Camberwell Road, the car that he owned was a 1984 Sigma, and he did not own any other type of real estate,” Mr Rush said. “The persons who have gained from Mr Connellan’s criminality have been the (gambling) establishments and, ultimately, the government.”
Connellan was caught only because a woman whose name he had taken from the phone book persistently complained to the bank when it sent her statements about a loan she had not taken out.
“Cases such as these before the courts, sadly, are becoming not uncommon,” Mr Rush said. “Twenty years ago, without the access of computers and without the access of, I suppose, carte blanche responsibility, with far more checks and balances, if one saw a bank employee stealing $30,000 that was considered to be a monumental amount of money. But . . . this matter went on for a protracted period of time.”
Putting Connellan in a bank was like putting a kid in a candy store. His gambling problems went back to his late teens, when he got caught up with illegal pokies in the Carlton area. He had two convictions for stealing from employers and one for having taken social security benefits while he was working. In 1996 he went into voluntary bankruptcy with debts of $40,000.
As with Toad, those who loved him had tried to save him from himself. Over the years there had been family meetings and family loans, his sister told the court.
This time they acknowledged defeat. Mr Rush said Connellan had not applied for bail because his family knew he would be jailed.
“How does a person get over such an addiction?” Judge James Duggan asked Ian Joblin, a forensic psychologist reporting on Connellan.
“Probably being where he is, unfortunately, your honour,” Mr Joblin replied. “He was deceiving his wife, he was deceiving his employer . . . there was no possible way leading up to the time of his arrest that this man was going to stop of his own resources. It could not happen. He had no conscience.”
But incarceration would not solve his emotional problems, he said. “The whole issue of why one needs to gamble in order to find stimulation and excitation in life, those are the issues that need to be addressed.”
He said Connellan would need coercive conditions placed on his release and should be supervised by the Parole Board for an unusually long time.
Connellan had come down from the artificial high that followed his arrest, his sister said. “I think it was a sort of defence mechanism . . . In the time he has been at the Port Phillip Prison he is a much more sober, more focused man who is, I think, seeing the fact that at 44, `What have you got to show for it? And if you don’t change, your life is virtually over.’ ”
THE PAIN OF ADDICTION
FRANK De STEFANO
The former Geelong mayor gambled away $8 million belonging to clients of his accounting firm. Mr De Stefano, 53, gambled mainly at Crown Casino. He will face charges in the Supreme Court in September over the missing money.
TRACEY ANN HENDERSON
The 32-year-old was employed as the AFL’s membership manager when she began siphoning money from the league in a scam that netted her $374,000. Over nine months Henderson wrote 20 suspect cheques that were used for gambling or to pay back “loan sharks” at Crown Casino. Sentenced to 18 months’ jail.
Described in the County Court as a “pathological gambler”, Roden stole $1.3 million from his employer. Roden was employed as a financial controller by a family import business in 1996 but after seven months he began forging his boss’s signature on cheques made payable to himself. He was sentenced to 27 months’ jail.
An addicted gambler who threatened to set off a bomb outside Crown Casino on May 13, 1998. He sold his wife’s car and his new utility and gambled the money away at Crown. He pleaded guilty to the bomb incident and received an 18-month community-based order. He was ordered to do 200 hours of community work.
JIE HUA YU
Played the pokies at the Ferntree Gully Hotel while her 19-month-old son Brian was dying in a scorching locked car on a hot day in a case that shocked the nation. Yu, 41, was sentenced in 2001 to four years’ jail for the manslaughter of her son but in an unusual move she was paroled almost immediately for a psychiatric assessment.
First published in The Age.