THE former treasurer who stole £40,000 from a Devon Rowing Club has been given a suspended jail sentence and described as “thoroughly dishonest” by a judge.

Valerie O’Connor stole so much cash over the four years of her thefts from the Bideford Amateur Rowing Club that it almost went bust in 2018 and only survived through emergency loans from its members.

The 142-year-old club, which has members from all over North Devon, was left unable to pay a £3,600 tax bill and at one stage could not obtain stock for its bar.  It is still repaying a £5,000 loan from a brewery.

O’Connor was spared an immediate jail sentence because it has taken more than five years to bring the case to court, during which time the police have been trying to unravel the trail of thefts.

The 71-year-old grandmother has not repaid a penny of the money and club chairman Mr Dave Copp wrote an impact statement saying she has not apologised.

 O’Connor, aged 71, of Newbridge Close, Bideford, admitted fraud at Exeter Crown Court and was jailed for two years, suspended for two years by Judge David Evans at Exeter Crown Court.

She was ordered to do 220 hours unpaid work and pay costs but the judge was unable to order any compensation because she is living on a state pension and has no assets.

He told her: “The club was nearly bankrupted and the members themselves had to club together to keep it afloat. They took out loans which are still being repaid. This was an egregious and prolonged breach of trust which put the very existence of the club in real peril.

“They are puzzled that six years on you have not repaid a penny and they have not received an apology, although they may not know that it is normal for the police to tell someone under investigation not to contact the complainants.

“No-one could ever suggest this was a one-off or an aberration or wholly out of character when you were offending over that time and that regularly. Part of your punishment is that you have rightly lost your good name in the community.

“You are remorseful for your thoroughly dishonest behaviour and I must reflect on the delay which has been quite exceptional.”

Miss Beth Rickerby, prosecuting, said the fraud came to light in 2018 when cheques written on the club’s account bounced and it was discovered they could not afford to pay a tax bill.

The club estimated its loss at £46,000 but the police reached a figure of £42,000 and O’Connor entered a basis of plea saying it was £35,000 to £42,000.

An impact statement from current chairman David Copp said the club almost folded and the effort to save it had caused enormous stress to the members and committee.

Mr Nick Lewin, defending, said O’Connor had started by borrowing money which she planned to repay and had been drawn deeper into the fraud. She had used most of the money to help her family and her only extravagance had been a holiday in Australia.

He said she had been ostracised and experienced unpleasantness and abuse in the small community where she lives.

He said: “She has suffered significant punishment in the form of the shame and humiliation she has felt. She is truly remorseful.”

The Rowing Club was founded in 1882 and has its own three-storey clubhouse and bar on the waterfront. Its crews have won more than 50 championships and its fours competed at last year’s Royal Henley Regatta.