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Matt Nippert is a business investigations reporter.

Prison sentence for two men in bribery case

Two men convicted of corruption in New Zealand's largest bribery case have been sent to prison.

Former Auckland Transport manager Murray Noone, and roading contractor Projenz managing director Stephen Borlase were investigated by the Serious Fraud Office and in December found guilty on six and eight charges, respectively, of taking and giving bribes involving more than $1 million.

Justice Sally Fitzgerald this morning at the High Court at Auckland jailed Borlase for five years and six months, and Noone for five years.

The sentence followed an unusually large divergence between the Crown, who sought seven years in prison, and defence counsel, who sought three.

Crown prosecutor Brian Dickey told the court this difference could be explained by how significant each side saw the offending. "[They] suggest this was all over-exuberance and misguided business behaviour, but essentially okay," he said.

"This isn't shoplifting, this isn't misappropriation. This is offending that goes to the heart of New Zealand's public service and its ethic."

Justice Fitzgerald noted the sums involved exceeded any other domestic conviction for bribery or corruption and damaged New Zealand's civic institutions and international reputation.

"Offending of this nature has a wider effect, harming New Zealand's public reputation as a place where corruption is low or nonexistent," she said.

She said Noone had a "limited" appreciation of his guilt, but the same could not be said for Borlase. "You continue to deny all the offending, attempt to justify your behaviour, and shift blame to others," she said, quoting a pre-sentence report.

This isn't shoplifting.
Brian Dickey

Serious Fraud Office director Julie Read said after the hearing that the case should sound a note of caution to other businesses.

"Improper hospitality and bribes such as this case can seem like part of business as usual and difficult to uncover but we suggest that every employee is responsible for identifying any red flags," she said.

Auckland Transport chief infrastructure officer Greg Edmonds, who had overseen Noone, said: "At the heart of this issue is a serious breach of trust by two individuals whose actions are in no way an indication of any sort of systemic failure."

Borlase paid Noone about $100,000 annually in "consulting fees" over seven years, in addition to numerous international trips and long lunches, when Noone was employed by the Rodney District Council, and then Auckland Transport.

On the back of council contracts Borlase's firm grew rapidly from a small operation that barely broke even, to making annual profits of $3.8m in the year before the offending was detected.

The pair had claimed their financial relationship was above-board and involved consultancy work that was unrelated to council contracts.

Justice Fitzgerald, in delivering her verdict, said this explanation was "implausible". She said the lack of any documentation supporting seven years - and more than $1 million - of claimed work by Noone "defies common sense".

During the eight-week trial, Crown prosecutor Brian Dickey laid out what he considered to be a "culture of corruption" in the roading department at RDC and Auckland Transport centred on the two accused.

Dickey outlined hundreds of thousands of dollars in entertainment spending by Projenz on council staff, and in cross-examining Borlase claimed the arrangement had bound the pair tight.

The offending came to light after Noone took a holiday in 2013 and a colleague who took over his work expressed reservations over a number of payments to Projenz awaiting authorisation.

A subsequent investigation resulted in Noone's deputy Barrie George, admitting receiving hundreds of thousands of dollars in undeclared gifts - mostly international travel - from Borlase.

George and Noone were later fired and the matter referred to the Serious Fraud Office.

George, who pleaded guilty before the trial and gave evidence as a witness for the prosecution, told the court of the first time he had accepted a bribe from Borlase.

Last month anti-corruption pressure group Transparency International ranked New Zealand as the least-corrupt country on Earth.

- NZ Herald

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