Qld principal admits fraud but not greed

Cheryl Goodenough |

Suzette Webster previously admitted taking sick leave to attend Melbourne Cup functions and travel.
Suzette Webster previously admitted taking sick leave to attend Melbourne Cup functions and travel.

A Queensland principal of 31 years defrauded the government and students of nearly $64,000 over half a decade, but in a “most unusual case” wasn’t motivated by greed or personal benefit.

Instead John Leonard Webster used an Education Department credit card to buy an iPhone later given to his daughter, fitness trackers for staff, gifts for Japanese dignitaries and raffle prizes like skydiving experiences, Brisbane Magistrates Court was told on Friday.

The 100 transactions worth about $29,000 related to a Japanese bilingual program Webster developed at the Brisbane school where he worked.

The program involved reciprocal tours between Australia and Japan.

The 60-year-old also accepted cash – amounting to about $35,000 – from students going on annual tours to Japan that he not give receipts for and could not account for spending.

Webster was the principal at Wellers Hill State School in the Brisbane suburb of Tarragindi earning up to $155,000 a year at the time.

The fraud totalling $63,943 came to light in 2018 when parents complained to the Education Department.

The court was told Webster didn’t benefit financially from the offences, but they were for his benefit.

Webster also admitted approving sick leave for his wife Suzette Maree Webster – a teacher at his school – when he knew she was not ill.

Prosecutor Zachary Kaplan said Webster “treated public funds as his own personal expense account” over five years.

He told the court detectives found nearly $10,000 in currency at Webster’s house during a search as part of their investigation in 2019.

But Webster’s barrister Craig Eberhardt argued Webster’s case was “extraordinary” as he wasn’t motivated by greed or self-enrichment.

The charges related to Webster failing to adhere to policy and account for funds, Mr Eberhardt argued.

He provided numerous references paying tribute to Webster, while about 30 supporters packed the courtroom, some standing in the aisle, during proceedings.

Mr Eberhardt said the credit card purchases were overwhelmingly not for Webster’s benefit.

They included the skydiving tickets raffled to staff at a personal development day and gifts and excursions for Japanese guests because it was expected in their culture.

The cash was “openly solicited from parents” and used for incidentals and tips when it wasn’t always possible to get a receipt and he could not account for the money, Mr Eberhardt said.

“This is not a case where he set out to steal money from those people … let alone benefit himself out of fraud,” he added.

“His offending was not motivated by greed or personal benefit.”

In sentencing Webster, Acting Magistrate Patrick Murphy said it was a “most unusual case”.

Mr Murphy said he accepted Webster’s motivation was to enrich the experiences and opportunities of students and his school.

“Whilst his offending is regrettable it seems to me the motivation behind the offending was his vision … than any personal reward,” he added.

He sentenced Webster to two-and-a-half years behind bars fully suspended for three years.

He also placed Webster on a good behaviour bond for the sick leave fraud.

Webster – who resigned last year after being stood down on full pay in December 2018 – was ordered to pay the full amount in restitution.

Suzette Webster was placed on a good behaviour bond after she previously admitted taking sick leave to attend Melbourne Cup Day functions and travel interstate with her husband.

The couple were charged after an investigation by the state’s Crime and Corruption Commission.