Kurt Bayer

Kurt Bayer is an APNZ reporter based in Christchurch.

Businessman who conned insurers and investors after quakes jailed

File photo / Rocky Batchelor
File photo / Rocky Batchelor

A Christchurch businessman who conned insurers and investors out of $1.1 million after the devastating earthquakes has today been jailed for more than two years.

Stuart Crellin Bell, 37, was chief executive of city software firm Black Box Spatial Ltd when the quakes hit.

But he'd already been sowing the seeds of his fraud before natural disaster struck the region.

Black Box, which developed and provided operational software and business information systems, had come up with a Road User Charges Off Road Rebate programme which calculated what money companies were due in road user rebates.

Bell faked email correspondence with potential clients, which he then used to encourage two investors to fork out almost $700,000 in capital investment between May 2010 and May 2011.

And after the September 2010 and February 2011 quakes, the company claimed and received $713,129 from Vero Insurance for business interruption after being unable to process road user charge rebates for its alleged clients.

Bell emailed faked contracts to the insurance loss adjustor in which he wrongly claimed he had secured contracts to complete road user charge rebates on their behalf.

The father-of-two also manufactured emails to convince two investors to put $690,000 into the Road User Charges Off Road Rebate programme, claiming it was on the verge of a cash windfall.

They are still out of pocket to the tune of $390,000 and have little hope of ever getting their money back.

Black Box has since been put into liquidation, and Christchurch District Court today heard that Bell had paid back $80,000 to Vero.

Bell, who had been living in Leeston but had recently been on bail to an Auckland address, pleaded guilty to seven charges, including using altered and forged documents, document fraud, and obtaining a financial advantage by deception, last November.

Defence counsel Richard Maze today said Bell's diagnosed dissociative amnesia as well as acute stress he was suffering, could have contributed to the offending.

"The facts of this case are highly unusual," he said.

Bell had taken part in a restorative justice conference, which Mr Maze said "couldn't have gone better".

There was "open dialogue and forgiveness", which spoke volumes for the character of his victims, but also of Mr Bell who had to "confront his victims, look them in the eye, accept what he has done, and apologise."

But Judge Alistair Garland said the impact of offending on the investors has been "substantial - financially and in terms of emotional harm that Bell caused them.

He also concluded that the crimes amounted to a "sustained period of dishonesty which in my view indicates a significant level of premeditation".

Judge Garland said that after the Canterbury earthquakes, all insurance companies were struggling with the sheer volume of claims, and therefore were "much more vulnerable to fraudulent claims than usual".

He said it amounted to a substantial breach of trust.

The judge accepted that Bell had lost his modest assets, faced bankruptcy, had obtained counselling and got a job as an apprentice builder, but said a sentence of imprisonment was unavoidable.

He jailed Bell for two years, three months.

Bell looked to his distraught wife in the public gallery as he was led into custody to begin his sentence.

- APNZ

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