Jared Savage

Jared Savage is the New Zealand Herald's investigations editor.

Payroll fraud accountant named by court

Mark Benjamin. File photo
Mark Benjamin. File photo

A senior accountant on a six-figure salary manipulated the company payroll to give himself a payrise - of just $10,000.

Name suppression has today been lifted from Mark Joseph Benjamin after he was convicted of seven fraud charges after a judge-alone trial in the Auckland District Court.

He appealed the suppression but was dismissed at a hearing at the High Court this morning.

The 45-year-old chartered accountant was a board member of the taxpayer-funded Hortresearch, a Crown Research Institute, and was also involved with the now defunct Auckland Regional Transport Authority.

In January 2006, Benjamin was hired as the chief financial officer for bulk food importer Kerry NZ Ltd. He negotiated for a salary of $180,000 but settled at $165,000.

But a few months later - at the same time two colleagues received pay increases - Benjamin gave himself a payrise to $175,000. He did this by tampering with the computer payroll system, so that if anyone checked, it would show the $165,000 salary he was entitled to.

In June 2006, Benjamin took five days annual leave. But he gave himself the holiday pay on top of his monthly salary, effectively another $3500. The following month, he took another five days leave. This time he reduced his monthly pay, but still on the basis of the bogus $175,000 salary - gaining an extra $1120.

Then when Benjamin left Kerry NZ in August 2006, he failed to deduct the 10 days of leave - another overpayment of $10,709.

It was nearly two years before the fraud was discovered, with police laying seven fraud charges in July 2008.

In his defence, Benjamin claimed the $10,000 payrise was verbally authorised - which was rejected by Kerry NZ bosses.

Defence counsel Mark Edgar told the Auckland District Court that if the salary rises would be "brazen" and discovered easily, if they were not legitimate changes.

He rhetorically asked why a man with Benjamin's background as professional chartered accountant would deliberately act this way for a $10,000 pay rise - then do a poor job of covering his tracks.

Benjamin's actions were a mistake, said Mr Edgar, as he was trialling the payroll system as a "test pilot" but forgot to correct the record. Similarly, he said the holiday pay bonuses were also errors of inexperience.

Judge David Wilson QC rejected Benjamin's story and convicted him on all seven charges.

"I find beyond reasonable doubt that he did this dishonestly and without claim of right. His explanation for his conduct is a fabrication which I reject."

Detective Sergeant Marty Laagland, officer in charge of the file, said he would alert the New Zealand Institute of Chartered Accountants about Benjamin's convictions.

Benjamin could be struck off as a result.

"He had a real sense of entitlement, that's the crux of it. He had a grudge against the company, he felt he deserved a pay rise, then manipulated the system to cover his tracks."

Benjamin will be sentenced on December 21.

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