FREEDOM: Michael Hartley leaves Gympie Magistrates Court with his wife after his acquittal yesterday.
FREEDOM: Michael Hartley leaves Gympie Magistrates Court with his wife after his acquittal yesterday. Renee Albrecht

Tears as planning director cleared of fraud charges

TEARS of relief flowed in Gympie Magistrates Court yesterday afternoon when Gympie Regional Council's former director of planning was cleared of fraud charges.

Michael Hartley was found not guilty at the end of a two day trial which Magistrate Michael Vice said left him in no doubt about the defendant's innocence.

The fraud charges, which alleged Mr Hartley dishonestly used a council corporate credit card in 2011, 2012 and 2013 were reduced to three charges from seven when proceedings began on Thursday.

The remaining charges, which were amended on Thursday, revolved around three conference trips Mr Hartley took when he was employed at the council.

The prosecution alleged Mr Hartley dishonestly charged accommodation costs for stays in Hobart and Sydney after attending conferences.

Mr Hartley told the court his extra time interstate was spent performing his job, which was to observe aspects of regional planning.

He said when he was in Hobart, Gympie's new council planning scheme was in its infancy, and he took advantage of studying heritage building protection, marine tourism and hillside development.

His time in Sydney followed his attendance at an urban design conference and helped him study public space issues relevant to the council's Mary St revitalisation project, he said.

The prosecution also alleged Mr Hartley dishonestly used his card to purchase an extra flight to Adelaide for a work colleague who also attended the conference in her own time.

Mr Hartl ey said he authorised the payment with the understanding the colleague would repay the money.

He said he was unaware the amount was not repaid until the allegations were made and the amount had since been repaid.

Mr Hartley's barrister Anthony Kimmins said the prosecution's case was "grossly inadequate", with attempts to patch it up as it went along.

Planning portfolio councillor Ian Petersen, who was called as a witness, said Mr Hartley was one of the most ethical men he knew and was held in high regard in his profession.

"He is one of the most conscientious, committed and loyal council workers I have met in my 18 years in council," he said.

After considering all evidence, Magistrate Vice said his decision was clear.

"In my mind, having considered the evidence in its entirety, I don't think there's any question as to the credit of Mr Hartley."

The defence requests for costs were refused, on the point that Mr Hartley had declined interview and case conferencing opportunities before the trial.

"It's a great relief, I'm glad it's over," Mr Hartley said as he left the courtroom.

"Justice has been done," Mr Petersen said.

Gympie Times


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