A (previously) respected astrophotographer from Queensland, Australia, has been sentenced to two years of suspended imprisonment for defrauding the Professional Photographers' Association of Queensland (PPAQ) out of AU$23,000 (approximately US$16,200 / £13,00) over three years, having Photoshopped financial reports and forged bank statements.
Mark Culley was said to be in a position of trust as the president and treasurer of the PPAQ, and his committed crimes of fraud and theft were carried out subtly by transferring large sums from the association's bank account directly into his own.
The photographer has pleaded guilty to five charges including multiple counts of forgery related to bank statements, counts of uttering a financial report, and one count of fraud (as reported by Inside Imaging).
Culley's actions took place from June 2016 until November 2019, whereby he transferred a total of $23,180.63 from the PPAQ to his personal bank account over the course of 59 separate transactions. He is said to have covered his tracks using Adobe Photoshop, as heard in court, by forging financial reports as well as bank statements over time.
Insider information from a former PPAQ member provided to Inside Imaging revealed that Culley joined the association in 2016, when it held around $30k in the bank and was a lively social group with regular meetups and member events. Soon after his arrival activity began to slow down, with membership numbers declining, and there are now only 14 current members of the association listed as Certified Professional Photographers.
The PPAQ was first established in 1928 and is now the only remaining professional photography group based in the country, after surpassing the now defunct Australian Institute of Professional Photography (AIPP). Memberships are divided between being classed as a Certified Professional Photographer (CCP) or a 'Developing Photographer'.
Culley boasted a two-decade career working as a professional photographer, though the court was told that his various businesses were "not doing so well" during the time he had been stealing from the PPAQ. His multitude of businesses included running workshops, shooting weddings and portraiture, running Brisbane Camera Workshops and Fotojenic, and beyond photography he additionally ran a business called Brisbane Jumping Castle Hire.
Shannon Chen, Mark Culley’s Defence solicitor, stated that his criminal activity was "not really sophisticated", and made reference to his unemployment situation between 2015 and 2016, as well as making it known that Culley had suffered from mental health issues. Chen does acknowledge, however, that his actions were "just not excusable".
In speaking with Australian newspaper, The Courier Mail, Ms Chen stated that: "He remembers it started off as a lapse of judgement. At the moment he was just trying to get some cash to cover his personal expenses and the expenses [of] his business… After realizing what he had done, he made further mistakes, he made further wrong choices, and failed to come clean to his fellow members… He then forged a financial report, forged bank statements, trying to cover up what he had done wrong."
Among the crimes Culley pleaded guilty to included forging the signature of an accountant, to which Magistrate Robert Walker described in court as "devious", considering that the falsified audit report in question had then dragged in an innocent person.
Culley’s prison sentence has been wholly suspended for three years, and he will not serve any time in jail provided that he complies with conditions that have been set, and he has been ordered to pay back the $23,180.63 that he stole from the PPAQ. It is unclear as to how the PPAQ discovered Culley's betrayal in the first place, how it occurred for so long, and the current financial situation that the association is now left in as a result.
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