Club torn apart over trusted stalwart’s thefts

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Queenstown bowlers are devastated and angry after catching one of their most trusted club members stealing to fund gambling.

Pillar of the community Eric Lee, 74, admitted swiping up to $12,000 from the regional bowls governing body and $465 in cash from the Queenstown club.

He also admitted forging a document to cover his tracks.

Accountant Lee was a member of Queenstown Bowling Club for more than a quarter of a century.

He was also treasurer and tournament secretary for regional governing body Central Otago Bowls Inc, and a former president of Queenstown Rotary.

Queenstown’s bowls club president Wayne Thompson says they installed spy cameras at the club in Queenstown Gardens to catch him in the act.

“We didn’t want to prosecute but the longer it went on the angrier we got.

“He was friends with everyone and that’s what makes it so hard and hurtful – he was a member of my triples team.

“It’s the idea he was just taking the mickey out of us, and if that’s what gambling does to you, that loss of control, I’d want to see the casino shut.”

In a statement to through lawyer Louise Denton, Lee says he’s “incredibly remorseful” and “wishes to apologise”.

He was seen pocketing various amounts between $10 and $85 from the till between October 9 and November 27 last year.

The club went to police, who investigated and found Lee had also trans-ferred a total of $5500 from the regional body’s bank account to his own.

He made eight transactions between October 25 and November 8.

Police found a receipt in his office from SkyCity Casino, dated November 5 last year, for $5500.

When questioned by cops, Lee estimated he’d stolen between $10,000 and $12,000 from Central Otago Bowls since 2012. He started gambling while facing financial hardship in 2012, after his marriage ended.

Thompson says questions of forgiveness have divided the 60-member club.

There’s anger but also the recognition that “gambling is a disease”, he says.

“If he was an alcoholic we wouldn’t ostracise him like he’s been ostracised now.”

Thompson says he wishes Lee had come clean to the club on his own.

“If he’d admitted this gambling thing to us we could have all moved on. We are hugely disappointed.”

SkyCity doesn’t comment on cases before the courts.

Central Otago Bowls president Angela Wilson says the whole bowling community is “stunned”.

On the Queenstown thefts, Lee told police IOUs were once accepted practice at the club and he had returned $50 to the float on at least one occasion. But he accepted the local committee outlawed the practice.

Lee’s charged with theft by a person in a special relationship over the regional bowls club thefts. It carries a maximum sentence of seven years’ imprisonment.

He also admitted forging the signature of an independent reviewer on the regional club’s 2014/15 financial statement – a charge which has a 10-year maximum term.

Lee was heavily involved in the Queenstown club, arranging tournaments and clearing the honesty box.

Lawyer Denton says: “Mr Lee is incredibly remorseful for his offending and has taken full responsibility for his actions.

“He understands fully the gravity of his actions, particularly the effect on the local community, and he cooperated fully with the police investigation.

“He wishes to apologise to all affected and will do so in due course through appropriate channels.”

He was a part-time consultant accountant for Queenstown’s Crowe Horwath until his arrest. Central Otago supremo Duncan Fea says: “Once charges were laid we’ve had no ongoing involvement with Eric.”

At Queenstown’s court on Monday, Lee pleaded guilty to the three charges and was remanded on bail until March 20.

paul.taylor@scene.co.nz