The former treasurer of an Old Westbury church accused by Nassau prosecutors of bilking the congregation out of more than $360,000 was himself a victim of a notorious money scheme, his lawyer and prosecutors said Wednesday.
Joaquim Canario, 74, was arrested and pleaded not guilty in Nassau County Court Wednesday to second-degree grand larceny. He used the stolen money to pay his mortgage, for personal items and to wire funds to banks in South Africa and England "as payments toward a fictitious multimillion dollar inheritance for which he was informed that he was the beneficiary," prosecutors said in a statement.
Canario's attorney, Larry Flowers of Huntington, said his client did not steal money from the Seventh-day Adventist Church in Old Westbury and that Canario, a married father of two and a grandfather, sent "significant amounts" of his own money to the scammers.
"He was a victim of one of these email scams where he lost a substantial amount of money," Flowers said. "His house was foreclosed on based on it and he suffers from various health conditions that made him more susceptible to these email scams. This isn't a case of a man who was looking to steal money for his own gain."
The Nassau district attorney's office said Canario stole $366,730.12 from a church bank account between April 2008 and January 2012. The money was discovered missing in June 2013 after the Greater New York Conference of Seventh Day Adventists, which oversees the Old Westbury church, did a review, prosecutors said. A church member notified Nassau authorities in November 2013.
"People have the right to exercise their freedom of religion without fearing that their house of worship will be targeted by someone for their own selfish financial gain," Nassau District Attorney Kathleen Rice said in a statement. "That this defendant was a member and trusted employee of this congregation makes his crime all the more inconceivable for men and women of faith."
The Greater New York Conference in Manhasset issued a statement Thursday saying it is cooperating with authorities on the investigation.
“When trust is placed in individuals we expect that they will not abuse that trust,” the statement said. “We are saddened by Mr. Canario’s misuse of his position and access to church funds.”
Maxine Sutherland, an organist who's been a member of the church since 1980, said Canario moved to Long Island from the African nation of Angola and was a "nice guy" who had been "very active" in the church.
Canario also could not be reached Wednesday. He was released on his own recognizance and is due back in court Jan. 20. If convicted, he faces a maximum of 5 to 15 years in prison.