Hamish Fletcher

Hamish Fletcher is a business reporter for the NZ Herald

Five Star man changes plea - Guilty

Five Star Finance founder Neill Williams has this afternoon changed his plea to guilty, four days into his SFO trial.  Photo / Steven McNicholl
Five Star Finance founder Neill Williams has this afternoon changed his plea to guilty, four days into his SFO trial. Photo / Steven McNicholl

Five Star founder Neill Williams - the so-called "puppeteer" at the failed finance group - has changed his plea to guilty and been convicted just four days into his Serious Fraud Office trial.

The elderly accountant, who has been declared bankrupt twice since age 60, was sentenced to three years and seven months in jail earlier this year in a Financial Markets Authority case.

Williams' trial on separate charges brought by the Serious Fraud Office began in the High Court at Auckland on Monday where the accused pleaded not guilty to two counts of theft by a person in a special relationship and five of dishonesty using a document.

But this afternoon he changed that plea and admitted the theft charges before Justice Murray Gilbert and was discharged on the dishonesty charges.

Williams will be sentenced on August 22nd and Justice Gilbert ordered that an updated pre-sentence report be prepared.

The charges against Williams relate to offending between mid-2003 and 2007 at Five Star Consumer Finance (FSCF), one of the companies in the collapsed Five Star Group.

FSCF failed in August 2007 owing $54.4 million, of which $12.2 million has been recovered.

Other companies in the group, including Five Star Finance (FSF), collapsed owing more than $40 million, little of which has been recovered.

"Toxic" related parties loans

Crown prosecutor Brian Dickey said in his opening statements on Monday that Williams allegedly planned and carried out a complex scheme to launder "toxic" related-party loans culminating in a transaction that was "as uncommercial as can be imagined".

Dickey said one of the theft charges Williams faced related to a "complex matrix of interrelated and interdependent transactions" from March 2007.

It involved Antares Finance Holdings (another company in the Five Star Group) purchasing all the shares of FSCF from FSF, which was previously its parent company.

The transactions were designed to direct FSCF investor funds into FSF and "cleaned out" substantial related-party lending, some of which gave rise to the other theft charge Williams is facing, the Crown lawyer said.

Five Star's related-parted balance was growing, which Dickey said was a problem for Williams and the group's listed directors.

"The new entity [Antares] would have audit requirements, the old entity did not. There was a risk these loans would be identified by any such audits as related party and heavily impaired - they needed to be laundered," Dickey said.

In order to raise capital for this purchase of FSCF, Antares tried and failed to raise funds from the public through an issue of redeemable preference shares, Dickey said.

But this was "hopelessly undersubscribed" and created an issue for Five Star's principals, who needed capital to discharge "toxic related party loans and have failed to successfully raise it through the Antares public offer".

Dickey said Williams planned and effected - with Five Star's board - a "transactional scheme" where $14.2 million was advanced from FSCF to six friends or associates of the accused or the group's managing director, Nicholas Kirk.

These six "borrowers" then subscribed for and were issued the redeemable preference shares in Antares, which paid the money to FSF. FSF then paid the $14.2 million back to FSCF to "discharge various related party debts", with funds that originated from FSCF.

"The redeemable preference share transaction was as uncommercial as can be imagined," Dickey said. "There was no prudency or commerciality in using investor funds to fund [FSCF's] own purchase and discharge debts owed to it by related parties and replace the same with non-recourse, unenforceable loans with worthless security".

Williams allegedly Five Star's "puppeteer"

On Tuesday, former FSCF general manager Wayne Wade appeared as a Crown witness and described Williams as a "puppeteer" at the failed finance group.

Williams was not a listed director of Five Star, but Wade said the bankrupt nonetheless described himself as its "founder" or "architect".

Wade said that Williams also called himself the "eminence gris" - which was a "classical reference to a cardinal who stands in the shadows pulling the strings".

While Williams liked to call himself and two other Five Star directors "the Three Musketeers", Wade said the elderly accountant was more like a "puppeteer".

Read more about Williams and his background here.

- NZ Herald

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