Former auctioneer jailed for three years
A local auctioneer, who shored up company losses using over €140,000 in booking deposits, before finally closing the doors on his business and absconding to Scotland, has been jailed for three years.
Anthony Breathnach, also known as Tony, shook his head in silent disbelief as Judge John Aylmer relayed the sentence at Cavan Circuit Court last month.
Sporting a beard and glasses, and dressed neatly in a jumper and jeans, Breathnach was accused by the judge of “robbing Peter to pay Paul” in a desperate attempt to trade his way out of financial trouble.
Mental health problems and difficulties in his personal life, coupled with mounting costs behind the scenes, precipitated his “fall from grace”. The court heard Breathnach now lives in “lonely and forlorn” circumstances working part-time as a food delivery driver.
The 53-year-old, of no fixed abode, came before the court on a signed plea of guilty in relation to 23 separate counts of theft, which occurred on dates between December 2015 and March 2017, and for amounts ranging from €847.50 to €25,000.
None of the money was repaid, and the full €142,751.95 was compensated through the Property Services Regulatory Authority (PSRA), which administers a compensation fund paid into by the those operating within property services sector.
Originally from Galway, Breathnach moved to Cavan in 2001, where he started working in the property sector in 2005, before setting out on his own as a Sherry Fitzgerald franchisee in 2014.
From 2014, Breathnach traded as an independent operator under the name ‘Cavan Real Estate’ up until the company’s closure in 2017.
Appearing first in the district court, he was sent forward for trial to the circuit court, following his arrest in Dublin Airport on foot of a European Arrest Warrant executed by Detective Garda Linda Harkin.
Prosecution Monica Lawlor BL, instructed by State solicitor Rory Hayden, informed the court that the maximum penalty that could be handed down to Breathnach was a fine or 10 years in prison.
Giving evidence, Det Harkin outlined each of the charges of theft of booking fee deposits for land, properties and businesses located in the Cavan area at the offices of Cavan Real Estate, Dublin Road, Cavan Town.
Breathnach pleaded to the theft of a deposit worth €5,000, the property of Seamus Clerkin, for a property at 5 Tower Hamlet on dates between October 13-17, 2016; €5,000 from Siobhan McPhilips for 16 Ashgrove, Drumalee on January 16, 2017; €5,000 belonging to Chris McWilliams for 22 Drumglen Close, Swellan, on October 26, 2016; €4,360.45 from Stephen Cassidy for Drumacon, Staghall, on dates between July 25, 2016 and February 1, 2017; and €10,000 belonging to Stephen Comiskey for the Crosskeys Inn on dates between January 1-31, 2016.
He retained a booking deposit worth €3,000, property of Brendan Peters for 63 River Run, Belturbet, January 1-31, 2017; €3,000 belonging to Mary Kelly for 60 River Run, November 1-30, 2016; €5,000 from Shauna McCabe, 3 Stonebridge Apartments, February 16, 2017; €5,000 Regina Doyle, Carson Dartry, Rockcorry, Monaghan, August 28, 2015; €5,000 Paddy McKee, 37 River Run, January 17, 2017; €3,500 Peter Donohoe for an apartment at Gortoolan, April 14, 2016; €3,000 Colm McCormack, 68 River Run, September 1-30, 2016; €5,000 Tommy Hewitt, 10 Cockhill, May 10, 2016; and €5,000 Tommy Hewitt, land at Cortobber, Killykeen, August 8, 2016.
Other charges related to a €847.50 booking deposit for Unit 4, Creeney Business Park, Belturbet, property of multinational financial consultancy firm Duff and Phelps, Dublin, October 26, 2016; €3,000 Michael McShane, 1 The Courtyard, Belturbet, September 1-November 4, 2016; €5,000 Rhona Doyle, 4 Kempton Court, Cavan Town, June 1-November 30, 2016; €3,000 Eleanora McCarthy, 63 River Run, November 1-December 20, 2016; €3,000 James McDermott, NCBI shop unit, Dublin Road, October 14, 2016; €5,000 Alan Lynch, The Parochial House, Erne Hill, November 1, 2016-March 17, 2017; and €5,000 Kathleen Hewitt, land at Drumcor, Loughduff, February 1, 2015-December 31, 2016.
The largest of the deposits taken by Breathnach was a booking deposit worth €25,000 belonging to Dublin-based commercial property specialists, Mason Own Lyons, on dates between December 1, 2015-January 31, 2016, for five apartments at The Belfry; and a deposit worth €26,044, belonging to Davy owned Target Investment Opportunities, between March 1, 2016-January 31, 2017, for 18 properties at River Run, Belturbet.
Det Harkin told the court how numerous customers had attempted to get their deposits refunded but were unable to.
On March 6, 2017, Det Harkin executed a search warrant at the firm’s Dublin Road premises. Breathnach was not present at the time and after Det Harkin learned he had left to live in Scotland. A file was subsequently filed to the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) on the matter, and arising from that a European Arrest Warrant for Breathnach’s arrest was sought and issued.
Breathnach spent a total of five days in jail in the UK after the arrest warrant was executed across the Irish Sea. He was later released, came before the court in custody having not applied for bail after his return to Ireland by arrangement on January 25, 2022.
Det Harkin informed the court that Breathnach had two employees, Val McCaul who worked as an estate agent on a commission basis, and Geraldine Boyle, who acted as secretary to the company.
Ms Boyle told the court how she had worked with Breathnach from 2008-09 up until the business closed in February 2017.
She had no access to accounts and, if people attended with cash, she put it in a marked enveloped and locked it in the defendant’s drawer.
In her statement to gardaí, in the final months, she described a rise in the number of “irate” customers calling to speak with Breathnach over the repayment of deposits.
“Nine times out of 10, he’d say he had returned the funds by online transfer,” she told investigating officers.
It all came to a head, she remembered, when on February 24, 2017, Breathnach arrived at the Dublin Road office, gave Ms Boyle her wages, and handed her a redundancy form.
Mr McCaul had been a self employed estate agent between 2007-12 when Breathnach, who previously worked for GA Burns Estate Agents, set out on his own under the Sherry Fitzgerald franchise formerly carried by the late Sean Martin.
Mr McCaul had “no part” in the financial dealings of the business, with all cash deposits given to Breathnach.
In late 2013-14, after running into difficulties making payments on the Sherry Fitzgerald franchise agreement, Breathnach set up Cavan Real Estate. Mr McCaul said he offered to become a director of the business, but Breathnach refused.
He blamed Breathnach’s troubles with the business on the defendant’s “featherheadedness”, though acknowledged he always seemed to be able to “placate” people.
Mr McCaul said he confronted Breathnach about demands for missing deposits on February 16, 2017, telling the defendant he felt “duped” and that his reputation would “take a hammering” as a result.
The court was told that Breathnach had earlier emailed the largest deposit holders informing them to make contact with the PRSA, and that his business would soon cease trading.
Smaller deposit holders only became aware of Cavan Real Estate’s demise after the business closed up and the problems facing the business were later reported in the media.
He had two previous convictions at the time, both of which were for road traffic matters.
Det Harkin said that, after Breathnach fled Ireland, he began managing a hotel in Scotland, which also folded.
Breathnach appeared before the court sitting represented by David Staunton BL, instructed by solicitor Anthony Collier.
In cross-examination Det Harkin acknowledged that Breathnach’s wife and children had moved to Scotland before he did, and that the defendant’s financial difficulties, both historical personal and also business, had a significant toll on his mental health around 2016 after things “snowballed”.
She noted too the “good relationship” Breathnach had with his former staff, and his efforts to try secure employment for them after.
In mitigation, Mr Staunton accepted his client had committed a “serious case of breach of trust”, but said that Breathnach was “guilt ridden” by this actions.
He accepted too that the method employed by Breathnach to use booking deposits to refund others where sales had fallen through was “always going to unravel”.
Breathnach worked with an online estate agency in Scotland after the hotel he worked for closed, but after they found out about the case in Ireland the defendant was let go.
He now wishes to retrain as a mental health professional once the matters before the court were dealt with. “He has not lived an ostentatious lifestyle,” said Mr Staunton of Breathnach, who wrote a “warts and all” letter to the judge, with other references also handed into court.
In considering sentencing, Judge Aylmer considered the fact that none of the monies had been repaid an “aggravating” factor in the case, and given the element of “greed” attached, placed the offending in the “mid-range”. He felt the offences merited a headline sentence of five years’ imprisonment.
However, taking into account Breathnach’s remorse, his displaying “appropriate levels of victim empathy”, as well as signed pleas of guilty, which merit up to a 50% reduction in sentencing, Judge Aylmer sentenced him to three years on each count, to run concurrently, with credit for time served.
Legal aid was granted and extended in the event of an appeal.
In 2019, Breathnach was banned by the High Court from seeking a licence to provide property services in Ireland in future.
The order, under the 2011 Property Services (Regulation) Act, was sought by representatives of the Property Services Regulatory Authority.