Judge says ex-escort entitled to privacy

By Jared Savage

Stephen Versalko. Photo / Dean Purcell
Stephen Versalko. Photo / Dean Purcell

ASB fraudster Stephen Versalko made two lump-sum payments of around $1 million to help an escort leave prostitution and set up her own business outside Auckland.

The bank took legal action against the woman to recoup the $2.55 million given to her by Versalko, who stole $17.8 million during a nine-year fraud.

The court case has since been settled and is the subject of strict confidentiality orders.

But Justice Rhys Harrison this week ruled in the High Court against an application by the Herald on Sunday - owned by Weekend Herald publisher APN Holdings - to overturn name suppression for the former escort.

Justice Harrison said there was no legitimate public interest in disclosing the identity of the woman, and naming her was outweighed by the risk of psychological and emotional harm to her teenage daughter.

The daughter is unaware of her mother's former occupation and Justice Harrison said she would become the "innocent victim of publicity".

Recently elevated to the Court of Appeal, Justice Harrison also ordered APN to pay the legal fees of the woman's lawyer, David Jones, QC.

In his written decision, Justice Harrison said ASB had claimed that it was "unconscionable" for the woman and related companies to have received $2.55 million of stolen money.

She denied the claim and said that she received all payments from Versalko in good faith, without knowing he was committing large-scale fraud.

Justice Harrison said Versalko met the woman at the Pelican Club in Auckland and payments were made to her for services rendered as an escort.

"A relationship then developed between the two of them outside the club environment, evolving to the point where she agreed to have Mr Versalko as her only client and give priority to him over everything else in her life," said Justice Harrison.

"Mr Versalko led her to believe that he wanted her to become self-sufficient and realise her goal of setting up a [business] and he placed her in a position whereby he would not have to pay her money for services on an ongoing basis."

The court file previously released by Justice Harrison showed that Versalko made two large payments to a company run by the woman - $1 million in December 2008 and $964,287 in April 2009. Days after the $1 million payment, the company bought a $720,000 lifestyle block on which the woman and her family now live.

He made a further 19 payments to her between April 2008 and August 2009 of between $3500 and $100,000 shortly before the fraud was discovered.

Versalko also made several cash payments and gave her $10,000 to buy clothes to wear on a business trip to Dubai. The pair stayed at the exclusive Burj Al Arab Hotel, where the cheapest room costs about $3000 a night.

The married father of three was later disappointed to find out the 41-year-old was already in a relationship.

While the case against the former escort has been settled, ASB Bank is trying to recoup some of the $17.8 million stolen by Versalko - which has been covered by insurance - before he was discovered and jailed after a Serious Fraud Office investigation.

He is serving a six-year sentence in Rangipo Prison, near Taupo.

Versalko spent most of the money on property and high living - including at least $3.4 million on prostitutes.

Blue-chip properties Versalko owned in Remuera and Coromandel have been sold and the $4 million from the sales held in a trust account as the ASB attempts to claw back the stolen millions.

While Versalko was able to defraud the ASB of $17.8 million for nine years, the scam was unravelled in just one day when a customer rang the bank with concerns.

The largest employee theft in the country was discovered only after an ASB Bank client saw a television show about Bernard Madoff, America's US$50 billion fraudster.

In August 2009, a woman who had invested more than $3 million with ASB adviser Versalko became uneasy about the fact that he was the only staff member she had dealt with.

If something happened to her, she reasoned, Versalko, 52, would be the only person who knew anything about the funds into which her money had gone.

At about the same time, she watched a documentary about Madoff's Ponzi schemes that rang alarm bells. Madoff's technique of fobbing off his victims reminded her of Versalko. A phone call to ASB confirmed the investor's worst fears - her multimillion-dollar investment portfolio was fictitious.

The subsequent investigation uncovered nearly 30 wealthy ASB clients who had been defrauded by Versalko in a surprisingly simple scam.

- NZ Herald

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