An Anglican priest who used the church credit card to make $192,000 worth of unauthorized purchases — including two trips to Las Vegas and numerous stays at the prestigious Fairmont Gold floor in Winnipeg — was sentenced to almost two years of house arrest on Tuesday.
Noah James Bernard Njegovan, 35, pleaded guilty to theft over $5,000 in Brandon Court of Queen’s Bench in December for stealing from the Anglican Church of Canada, The Diocese of Brandon between Jan. 26, 2010 and Aug. 27, 2012 — where he was an executive archdeacon at the time.
It was this guilty plea, a request for mercy from the church and Njegovan’s parents selling their house to pay the diocese $192,000 in restitution that led to the joint recommendation between the Crown and the defence for a conditional sentence.
"The repayment of at least the amount he stole is significant," Crown attorney Jim Ross told the court. "It saves the victim from what is often a futile effort to collect a restitution order and it at least replaces the funds which were taken."
"If (Njegovan’s parents) had not done that, we might be in a very different position today," defence lawyer Michael Cook said. "He may have been looking to get on a bus today to Headingley (Correctional Centre), or even Stony Mountain (Institution)."
Over the course of approximately 30 months, more than 800 purchases of personal items were made on the church credit card, Ross said.
A total of $92,000 was withdrawn off the credit card as cash advances from ATMs, often late at night after the card had been used at a bar or a restaurant, Ross said.
Njegovan racked up $44,000 at bars and restaurants in 389 transactions, including a $740 dinner at Bailey’s Restaurant & Lounge in Winnipeg on the day of his 30th birthday.
Approximately $23,000 was used for non-business travel and hotels, Ross said, sometimes paying for two flights and two hotel rooms for Njegovan and a friend.
"The Crown can prove two trips to Las Vegas," Ross said. "One, for example, cost $3,363 in hotel and airfare … on the way back from that trip Mr. Njegovan and a buddy were stopped by the Canada Border Services agency, who found cocaine residue on the dash of their vehicle. His passenger took responsibility for that."
Other travel included approximately nine stays at the Fairmont Gold floor in Winnipeg, averaging approximately $600 a night, and multiple stays at hotels in Brandon despite living there at the time, Ross said.
Njegovan evaded detection by paying his credit card bills online with the diocese’s savings account, which he had the authority to transfer money from, Ross said. He repeatedly put off audits supposed to be done by outside accountants and never disclosed his credit card statements or the transfers from the savings account.
"(Njegovan) had to tell repeated lies to conceal what he was doing from the executive committee of the diocese," Ross said. "They had a simple system that worked well for decades … Mr. Njegovan changed this procedure to allow himself to do what he did."
Reading his victim impact statement to the court, the diocese’s bishop, Right Rev. William Cliff, said the revelation of Njegovan’s theft has had a major impact on The Diocese of Brandon, including the "drastic drop" of annual funding, which forced them to dig even deeper into savings to make up the difference.
"We will be years recovering from the financial implications of the theft and the resulting loss of trust. We may never recover to the level of financial trust we had before this incident, and we have significantly enhanced our financial policies," Cliff said.
"Nevertheless, The Diocese of Brandon does not want Mr. Njegovan to go to jail. We do not believe that a custodial sentence would either serve a purpose for us, or for him … We believe he has suffered enough … there’s been enough public shame and loss of reputation to serve as a deterrent … We simply ask for mercy."
Cook reiterated Njegovan’s feelings of shame, adding Njegovan was going through a "dark period" at the time of the thefts, including the break down of his marriage.
"Mr. Njegovan’s story is similar in some respects to most people who steal. He started taking parishioners out for lunches and dinners … which was a charitable thing to do, it was a righteous thing to do, but then the boundaries started to expand a bit," Cook said. "It was a downward spiral that got him deeper and deeper into debt, and then he needed to find ways to hide it."
"$192,000, from a church," Justice John Menzies said, pausing for a moment. "An organization that preaches trust and giving the benefit of the doubt to their fellow man pays for that."
Menzies shook his head in apparent disbelief while sentencing, explaining there were many philosophical issues he had to consider.
"Is there a law for the rich and a law for the poor? A poor man who could not pay back the $192,000 would be on their way to Stony Mountain today, while someone who has access to money and can pay it back, gets a more lenient treatment," Menzies said. "Now I understand why — at the end of the day the diocese needs its money back. If there’s no incentive for an accused to pay back the money they stole, then the accused goes to jail and the diocese is $192,000 in the hole."
Ultimately, Menzies accepted the joint recommendation and sentenced Njegovan to 22 months of house arrest. He must abide by a 24-hour curfew for the first 12 months, with the exception of work, emergencies, and four hours a week to run errands and purchase necessities.
For the remaining 10 months of the sentence, Njegovan’s curfew will loosen to 10 p.m. to 7 a.m..
"This is a horrible, horrible offence," Menzies said. "Let me tell you, without question, that without that recommendation from those two counsel, you’d be on your way to jail."
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