Notorious Hawke's Bay fraudster freed

By DOUG LAING AND LAWRENCE GULLERY

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Disgraced former Waipawa accountant Warren Pickett is being released from prison today after a minimum non-parole period of three years and four months, for two decades of deceit in which he robbed more than 200 friends and other trusting clients of up to $20 million.

Sentenced in 2009 to five years, to serve a minimum of two thirds, the former Justice of the Peace and prominent member of the Central Hawke's Bay community became eligible to be considered for early release on August 9.

Release was granted after a Parole Board hearing six days later, and Hawke's Bay Today understands release takes place today, although the date is not included in the board decision released yesterday.

Among conditions are that the now 67-year-old Pickett must not undertake any employment as an accountant, be involved in any transaction involving other people's money, and he cannot be involved in any employment without the consent of his probation officer.

He has been paroled to an address which is also not identified in the decision, although not thought to to be in Central Hawke's Bay, where his property was sold for $1,020,000, which was unable to be touched by liquidators.

He cannot move from the parole address without the officer's approval and, similarly, in the conditions which apply until six months past the five-year sentence expiry in May 2014, he is not allowed to contact or associate with any of his known 212 victims.

Any breach could see Pickett face fresh charges in court or be recalled to prison. Additionally, as an undischarged bankrupt he cannot undertake any form of self-employment.

Despite the number of victims, just one made a submission to the board, and panel convener Judge Richard Watson commented: "In essence, that person does not believe Mr Pickett should be released at this time.

"The submission has been given due weight by the board."

Last night it was not clear how many victims had prior knowledge of the hearing.

Some may not have been too interested, as indicated by Napier-based former CHB couple John and Kathie Hands, who decided not to put their names on a Victims' Notification Register and learnt of the outcome only yesterday from Hawke's Bay Today.

Moving from Feilding to Waipawa in 1971, Pickett operated as an accountant but in the late 1980s bought limited liability companies Waipawa Holdings and Waipawa Finance. Through them, as sole shareholder and director, he ran what has since been labelled a Ponzi scheme, accepting deposits from investors and providing loans to individuals and businesses.

During two decades, money given to him for investment was channelled through the companies to failed schemes, used as other investors' withdrawals.

The financial roundabout he created eventually spun out, stunning hundreds in CHB in August 2008 when he shut the doors, and the Serious Fraud Office became involved. It found years of cooking the books and little formality in the operation by a pillar of the community trusted implicitly by those who invested.

The company liquidation found liabilities totalling almost $20 million, no more than 5 per cent likely to be recovered for victims, among whom some attained some redress when a court ordered the Inland Revenue Department to return resident withholding tax it had collected.

Mr and Mrs Hands were among them, recovering about 10 per cent of the $312,000 they'd lost in a diversification investment gone wrong.

Mr Hands yesterday recalled when he learned of the finance collapse from fellow CHB businessmen Bill Stephenson, on whose advice he invested.

"He was as white as a sheet, and he just said: 'Pickett'. I said 'what do you mean?', and Bill said: 'It's all gone'."

Also unable to be touched by liquidators was a Taupo house owned in the name of Pickett's wife. She is understood to have separated from him and is not living in that area or in the Bay.

- Hawkes Bay Today

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