Hamish Fletcher

Business reporter for the NZ Herald

'Cynical fraud' gets extra jail time for Five Star man

Five Star Finance founder Neill Williams. Photo / Steven McNicholl
Five Star Finance founder Neill Williams. Photo / Steven McNicholl

Five Star founder Neill Williams has had 17 months added to his jail sentence for what prosecutors called "very cynical fraud".

The elderly accountant, who has been declared bankrupt twice since age 60, was sentenced to 3 years and 7 months in jail earlier this year in a Financial Markets Authority case.

Williams' trial on separate charges brought by the Serious Fraud Office - for which he was sentenced on today before Justice Murray Gilbert - began in the High Court at Auckland in June. He initially pleaded not guilty to two counts of theft by a person in a special relationship and five of dishonesty using a document.

But after just three days of proceedings he changed that plea, admitted the theft and was discharged on the dishonesty counts.

The charges against Williams, 79, related to offending between mid-2003 and 2007 at Five Star Consumer Finance (FSCF), one of the companies in the collapsed Five Star Group.

FSCF failed in August 2007 owing $54.4 million, of which $12.2 million has been recovered.

Other companies in the group, including Five Star Finance (FSF), collapsed owing investors more than $40 million, little of which has been recovered.

Crown prosecutor Brian Dickey said what went on at Five Star was up there with the most serious finance company offending, because of the amount of money and degree of "cynicism" involved.

"My short submission is this was very cynical fraud," Dickey said this morning.

Dickey said a "core of related-party loans" went from the company to interests associated with Five Star's equity holders and Williams.

This related-party lending was never disclosed.

These loans couldn't be repaid so "had to refreshed and had to be hidden" otherwise "the house of cards which was the Five Star Group would have come tumbling down", Dickey said.

The Crown lawyer made reference to the "layers and convoluted structures and processes" which the directors and Williams were prepared to engage in to "hide the truth and misappropriate money."

Dickey said there was "a level of deception from the outset" at Five Star to keep Williams hidden because of his own "chequered business history and bankruptcy".

Williams, who is a cancer survivor and previously suffered from heart disease, was never a listed of director at Five Star but witnesses during his trial said the bankrupt described himself as the finance group's "founder" or "architect".

Williams' lawyer, Sam Wimsett, said his client had an "insight into his offending" and the consequences of it.

While Wimsett said "significant events" took place at Five Star without Williams' involvement, when handing down his sentence Justice Gilbert said the bankrupt accountant was heavily involved in the management and operation of the group.

The judge called Williams a "defacto director".

Gilbert said one of the charges Williams faced involved seven related-party loans worth $29 million while the other concerned transactions worth $14.2 million.

Williams played a central role in each set of offending, the judge said.

While Williams was less culpable than Five Star director Nicholas Kirk, his culpability was greater than board members Marcus Macdonald and Anthony Bowden, Justice Gilbert said.

These men have already been dealt with by the courts and Kirk and Macdonald were sentenced to prison and Bowden to home detention.

In taking into account all of Williams' offending (in both the FMA and SFO cases) Justice Gilbert decided on a sentencing starting point of 5 years 6 months in prison.

He gave the man a discount of 6 months for his age and poor health but declined to offer any reduction for his guilty plea.

"You guilty plea came extremely late...a conviction in this case was inevitable," Justice Gilbert said.

He sentenced Williams to a total of 5 years in jail, which will add 17 months to the sentence he is already serving.

Read more about Williams and his background here.

- NZ Herald

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