Matt Nippert is a business investigations journalist.

Heart of the City recovers just a fraction of Swney's stolen millions

Former Heart of the City chief executive Alex Swney. Photo / Nick Reed
Former Heart of the City chief executive Alex Swney. Photo / Nick Reed

Recovery action by Heart of the City against Alex Swney recovered less than 14 per cent of the millions stolen by the organisations' disgraced former chief executive and founder.

Financial statements filed to the Incorporated Societies register show that the organisation, ripped off more than $2.5 million by Swney, made net recoveries of just $353,623.

Notes to the accounts said $755,848 was paid by Swney and two trusts associated with him to settle civil action, but these were offset by bills from accountants McGrathNicol and lawyers Russell McVeagh who charged $401,861 to investigate and litigate the case.

When the civil action was settled last year, Heart of the City declined to say how much had been recovered citing "confidentiality".

Heart of the City spokesperson Tania Loveridge defended the results of the recovery action and said the duration of the offending made it unlikely the total sum of stolen money could have been clawed back.

"Based on the evidence at hand and legal advice taken at all stages, the executive committee was confident that the funds recovered represented the best outcome for Heart of the City," she said.

Swney was last year jailed for a term of five years and seven months after pleading guilty to stealing $2,527,005 from Heart of the City over the course of more than a decade.

The court heard Swney had submitted fake invoices to the society for work that had not been done and then signed off the payments himself in order to illicitly bolster his salary by hundreds of thousands of dollars each year.

Heart of the City has thoroughly reviewed all its internal policies and procedures and a number of measures have been taken to improved overall governance and controls.
Tania Loveridge

He also failed to pay taxes on his legitimate and illegitimate income and pleaded guilty to tax evasion charges totaling $1,757,147.

He is understood to become eligible for parole later this year.

At his sentencing hearing the Serious Fraud Office prosecutor said Swney had consistently stolen hundreds of thousands of dollars a year because he felt that, as chief executive and founder, he was underpaid by Heart of the City.

"His motivation seems to be that he felt he had been underpaid for his contribution to HOTC and had not been sufficiently recognised and should have got more credit for building it into the successful organisation that it is," the prosecutor said.

Loveridge said there was still live action against Swney personally, but the chances of further recoveries were slim.

"In light of the intervening bankruptcy, these are subject to ongoing discussions with the official assignee," she said.

Offending by Swney appears to have pushed Heart of the City to the financial brink, with the organisation only recently returning to stability.

The ratepayer-funded organisation, tasked with boosting retail commerce in the central city, recorded negative working capital at June 30, 2014, following a $771,126 deficit left it with perilously low equity levels of just $68,123.

A year of cost-cutting — sponsorship and events funding was cut to $1.9 million from $3.3 million, including severing support for the giant Queen Street Santa statue — saw the organisation stablise in the 2015 financial year after reporting a $805,155 surplus.

Loveridge said Heart of the City had learned from the Swney affair.

"Heart of the City has thoroughly reviewed all its internal policies and procedures and a number of measures have been taken to improved overall governance and controls, including expanded external accounting and audit services," she said.

Read Heart of the City's latest financial statements here.

- NZ Herald

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