Treasurer stole from Norfolk community centre to fund �50,000 lottery addiction

A man who spent more than �50,000 on lottery tickets over five years apologised last night for stealing money from a Norfolk community centre's coffers to fund his destructive addiction.

Peter Houghton, 78, abused his role as chairman and treasurer of North Wymondham Community Centre to write himself cheques totalling more than �4,000 to fund a trip to visit his grandchildren in Canada and top up his personal finances as he struggled to cope.

Yesterday, he avoided jail at Norwich Magistrates' Court, where he received an eight-week sentence, suspended for 12 months, after pleading guilty to fraud by abuse of position.

Speaking after the case, Houghton spoke of how 'thoroughly ashamed' he was of having stolen �4,101.34, raised by the centre through hall bookings, adding: 'I'm only too pleased not to get a custodial sentence.'

He explained that his troubles had begun in 2008, the year after his wife had died, and that at its peak he was buying up to 60 tickets a week.

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'I was reasonably well off at that point. I only cut back when I started having problems with the funds,' said Houghton, of Lime Tree Avenue, Wymondham.

'In truth, I suppose I could have gone to Gamblers Anonymous, but I didn't.'

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He said two minor wins – �4,500 in 1999 and �7,500 in 2004 – had fuelled his addiction and led him to continue chasing bigger wins.

'It was after my wife died that things got out of hand with the gambling,' he said. 'It was only ever lottery tickets – I didn't gamble on anything else, because I don't follow the horses.

'I'm just very pleased that I didn't get a custodial sentence because it would have meant I would have lost everything – my house, my home.'

The court heard that Houghton was declared bankrupt on Tuesday with debts of �32,000, just four years after unlocking �35,000 through an equity release scheme on his home.

He spent between �15,000 and �20,000 on debt repayments and home improvements, but the majority of the �67,000 was spent on lottery tickets as he convinced himself that he would win the jackpot.

Houghton said he always intended to pay the money back and was close to a breakdown before visiting family in Canada – funded by �1,100 from the community centre – after which he amended his will to benefit the organisation.

His offences came to light in March after he was succeeded and the new chairman began to examine the accounts, asking Houghton for help.

'He appeared to be reluctant to do so,' said prosecutor Ben Brighouse. 'Eventually, she found there was approximately �3,000 less than Mr Houghton had led her to believe.'

When she confronted him at home, Houghton said: 'I think you can see I have a bit of a problem.'

He admitted the offences in a police interview and said he had planned to return the funds, but added: 'Why I ever thought I'd be able to pay it back I don't know.

'It was my own weakness and inability to control my own finances.'

Sentencing Houghton, District Judge Peter Veits said: 'This was clearly a breach of trust over a period of time while you were chair and treasurer.

'Voluntary donations were stolen by you and used for a trip to Canada – not just making ends meet.'

Houghton will repay the stolen money at �10 a week and his sentence includes a residency condition that he must remain at his current address for six months.

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