The lover of a former senior Ports of Auckland manager who stole more than $368,000 from the company with her partner in crime has been jailed.
Litia Vuniduvu was sentenced today in the North Shore District Court by Judge Jonathan Down after she was found guilty by a jury earlier this year of 50 charges of dishonestly using a document.
She will spend three years behind bars.
The 39-year-old was prosecuted alongside Paul Wayne Bainbridge, with whom she conducted an elaborate and lengthy fake invoice scheme over three years.
The pair went on to steal $368,842.50 from the Ports of Auckland, an Auckland Council-owned company, in what the Crown today called their "joint enterprise".
During the sentencing hearing, Vuniduvu gave a lengthy and tearful statement to the court.
"Please excuse me if I get emotional," she began.
"I'm a recovered alcoholic... I've been sober for five years."
At about the time the fraud started, Vuniduvu said she had relapsed.
However, since the guilty verdicts she said she has had time to reflect on her offending while in custody.
"I haven't seen my children for three years... I lost my job as a project manager," she said.
"After having reflected in prison over the guilty verdict... I have come to full acceptance of it."
While Vuniduvu said her alcoholism was not an excuse for her offending she was now at a "crossroads in my life", knowing she will have 50 criminal convictions for the rest of her life.
"I know you have the power to give me another chance and go out into the community to recover as an alcoholic," she said to Judge Down.
"The experience in prison has made me a better woman because of knowing what life on the other side is like... I'm grateful that you declined my bail because it saved me."
But Judge Down said Vuniduvu was "fully aware of and fully participated" in the fraud.
"The steps to conceal this offending were very substantial indeed, including creating a number of [fraudulent] documents," he said.
The judge added: "Before I came into court this morning there was no indication of remorse whatsoever."
But while he was satisfied after Vuniduvu's speech that there was some remorse he still "[doesn't] believe she fully accepts her responsibility, even today".
Vuniduvu had arrived in New Zealand from Fiji in 2007 and first met the married Bainbridge on an internet dating website in 2012, court documents released to the Herald show.
The court heard today that deportation proceedings have not yet begun for Vuniduvu, who was in initially in New Zealand on a work visa.
Bainbridge was working at the ports as a contractor since 2011 and from July 2012 became the manager of its ICT services.
In the position, he had financial authority for expenditure for several millions of dollars, had the authority to approve single purchase orders and invoices of up to $100,000, and to hire contractors for up to six months.
Vuniduvu's lawyer Richard Slade told the court today his client would never have offended if not for Bainbridge, who had abused his position of power and authority with the Ports of Auckland.
The fraud began when the first of several dozens of bogus invoices was sent to Ports of Auckland In December 2013 from Vuniduvu - under the guise of the alias Tia Rokele.
The first invoice claimed a payment for $6400 - it was quickly authorised by Bainbridge and paid into Vuniduvu's ASB account, which had been opened in the name of a third party to avoid limitations imposed by her visa status.
More fake invoices rolled in - all approved by Bainbridge, who later signed off his lover as an approved vendor.
Bainbridge also assured another Ports of Auckland employee at the time that Tia Rokele's services were needed for IT-related research, reviews and consultancy assistance.
Over the next 21 months Bainbridge and Vuniduvu continued their ruse, confident they wouldn't be caught.
The money was spent on clothes, travel and Vuniduvu's business.
More invoices flooded in, finally reaching a total of 50 before the final payment was withheld when the offending was uncovered in an audit by Deloitte.
Ports of Auckland's senior staff were "shocked" at the scale of the fraud, the company has said in a victim impact statement.
Bainbridge was considered an "experienced, trustworthy and professional worker" and in one of the company's most senior positions outside of the executive team.
"Mr Bainbridge was in a position of trust, was well paid and was considered a dutiful family man," the statement reads.
When confronted, Bainbridge refused to offer his employer an explanation and would only claim in his statement of defence that he had declared his relationship with Vuniduvu to the chief financial officer.
But the CFO considered that a "blatant lie".
During their ruse, Bainbridge also gave Vuniduvu a company-issued phone and racked up a $1829 bill, the investigation found. The phone was recovered but irreparably damaged.
After pleading guilty, Bainbridge was sentenced in December 2017 by Judge Brooke Gibson to three years and one month imprisonment.
Last month he was released after his first Parole Board hearing.
In the board's decision Bainbridge said he "admits that he was lax around process and failed to put his conflict of interest with [Vuniduvu] in writing".
However, concerns remained after Bainbridge "continues to minimise the offending and his role in it".
Despite this, the board assessed Bainbridge as posing a low risk of re-offending and was said to have been well behaved in prison.
Bainbridge also told the board he plans to work in a backroom office role upon his release.
Hundreds of thousands of more ratepayer dollars has been spent on the case against the fraudsters.
The investigation cost the Ports of Auckland $72,241, while legal fees to the end of March 2017 had reached $117,631, court documents show.
The total cost for legal fees, however, is now understood to be somewhat higher to account for Vuniduvu's prosecution after her initial trial was aborted last September.
The Ports of Auckland also engaged Bainbridge in a civil claim to recover the stolen money and has spent further money to train its staff about identifying suspicious transactions.