Hamish Fletcher

Hamish Fletcher is a business reporter for the NZ Herald

Five Star founder jailed for misleading investors

Neill Williams, who is being sentenced today for his role in the collapse of Five Star Finance. Photo / NZ Herald
Neill Williams, who is being sentenced today for his role in the collapse of Five Star Finance. Photo / NZ Herald

Five Star group founder Neill Williams has been jailed for 3 years seven months for misleading investors.

Williams, 79, pleaded guilty in 2010 to three Securities Act charges concerning misstatement in an advertisement or registered prospectus.

He also pleaded guilty to one charge of a false or misleading statement in a financial statement.

This morning Crown prosecutor Steve Symon said Williams' offending was "some of the worst of its kind in a finance company context" and pushed for a sentencing starting point of five years' jail for the accountant.

Williams was not a listed director of Five Star Finance or related company Five Star Consumer Finance and claimed he was only an employee of director Nicholas Kirk.

But a District Court judge found otherwise last month and said that Williams was "an integral part of all major strategic decisions within the Five Star group".

In this decision, Judge David Wilson said that Williams was the founder of Five Star and said his "employment" by Kirk was part of a "careful construction to hide the real position from the investing public and the authorities".

Symon said today this concealment was an aggravating factor when it came to sentencing.

Williams is elderly and has a number of health problems and his defence believes a sentence of home detention would be appropriate.

But Symon said Williams' health concerns could be accommodated while he was in custody.

Williams had pleaded guilty three weeks before he was due to go to trial and Symon said he had done everything he could to avoid sentencing since then.

This included attempting to vacate his plea twice, which were both rejected.

Williams had submitted he was remorseful but the Crown did not accept that, Symon said.

The offender had maintained he was not responsible for any harm done to investors, the Crown lawyer said.

"Saying you feel sorry for yourself and saying you feel sorry for investors because of what you think other people have done does not make you remorseful," Symon said.

Williams sentencing discounts for his guilty plea, ill health and age should be "nominal", Symon said.

The 79-year-old's lawyer, Andrew Speed, said none of the witnesses at the hearing to determine Williams' role at Five Star had said he was involved in preparing the offending prospectus.

It was not accepted that Williams was "the driving force" at Five Star, Speed said.

"There is no suggestion Mr Williams actively encouraged any lies," his lawyer said.

Speed submissions to the judge say a starting point of three years would be appropriate.

Judge Wilson in sentencing Williams today, set a starting point of four years six months in jail.

After giving the offender discounts for his guilty plea, elderly age, the poor health of Williams and his wife, he sentenced him to three years seven months in jail.

The case was brought originally by the Ministry of Economic Development and then picked up by the Financial Markets Authority (FMA) and Williams is due to go to trial in the High Court during June on charges brought by the Serious Fraud Office.

Belinda Moffat, FMA head of enforcement, said Williams' offending was at the highest end of the spectrum, and his desire to fly under the radar to hide his real position from the investing public added a layer of deception.

"Investors have a right to know who is at the helm of the companies they trust their money to, and this judgment should act as a reminder of that," Moffat said.

Under the Securities Act, Williams' conviction means he is automatically banned from managing companies for five years.

- NZ Herald

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