Thieving gambler’s victim ailing father

Michael Whelan (73) says he wants to help other problem gamblers address their addiction. PHOTO:...
Michael Whelan (73) says he wants to help other problem gamblers address their addiction. PHOTO: ROB KIDD
For four years a Dunedin man known for his charity work secretly fleeced his ailing father of nearly $150,000, a court has heard.

The 91-year-old died in 2019 never knowing of Michael John Whelan’s “gross breach of trust”, but not even his death was enough to stop the brazen swindle.

The deceit only ended in January last year when the accounts were frozen after concerned family members took their father’s death certificate to the bank.

Whelan (73) appeared before the Dunedin District Court yesterday after pleading guilty to theft and theft by a person in a special relationship, and was sentenced to 10 months’ home detention.

“Your reputation both publicly and privately is in tatters and this is a significant fall from grace,” said Judge David Robinson.

The court heard Whelan had paid back all the stolen cash, covered the costs of his father’s funeral and met his siblings to apologise for his actions.

Nevertheless, the judge said, there was a “sense of betrayal” and the victims spoke of how the ordeal had hampered their ability to grieve.

In June 2015, James Robert Whelan’s health was in decline and he gave his son power of attorney over his property, an act that set in train more than five years of fraud.

A police summary showed the defendant regularly withdrew “large sums of cash” from ATMs at the Dunedin Casino, which sometimes totalled more than $1000 in a day.

By August 2019, Whelan had racked up gambling costs of $101,040.

Another $40,000 was withdrawn from other terminals around Dunedin, the court heard.

When the repeated deceit was finally uncovered, Whelan had siphoned off $147,709 — about half what was in his father’s account.

The defendant was not long retired following a lengthy period working in “high-pressure prominent roles” when the fraud began.

He told Probation in a pre-sentence interview that he had missed the thrill his employment gave him, and turned to gambling which “provided an adrenaline rush and a sense of fulfilment”.

The court heard Whelan had since sought help from the Problem Gambling Foundation and not placed a bet in a year.

He said he felt “toxic shame” and a loss of mana over his transgressions.

A search for Whelan online shows several photos of him involved in philanthropic pursuits over recent years.

One depicts him handling food donations bound for the Dunedin Night Shelter while another sees him beaming while receiving a cheque for $1000 on behalf of the Anglican Family Care food bank.

Counsel Anne Stevens QC said her client had a plethora of voluntary community involvement behind him, particularly in the Catholic Church, and stressed he had no criminal history.

Whelan had since resigned from his charity roles and now planned to be a role model to help other addicts, she said.

Mrs Stevens said the fact the defendant’s father never discovered his son’s betrayal helped the defence case, but Judge Robinson disagreed.

“It was his state that left him in ignorance, whether or not he was aware of the thefts carries no weight,” he said. “The reality is his assets were targeted because of his inability to understand what was going on.”

As well as the home detention, Whelan was sentenced to 180 hours’ community work.




Our journalists are your neighbours

We are the South's eyes and ears in crucial council meetings, at court hearings, on the sidelines of sporting events and on the frontline of breaking news.

As our region faces uncharted waters in the wake of a global pandemic, Otago Daily Times continues to bring you local stories that matter.

We employ local journalists and photographers to tell your stories, as other outlets cut local coverage in favour of stories told out of Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch.

You can help us continue to bring you local news you can trust by becoming a supporter.

Become a Supporter