A chief executive's assistant forged her boss's signature to steal hundreds of thousands of dollars from one of New Zealand's biggest insurance firms.

Mechelle Catterall, 36, was executive assistant to bosses at Sovereign Insurance, New Zealand's biggest life insurer, from 2006. But her career imploded when she was accused offorging invoices to steal $643,000.

Catterall has pleaded guilty in the North Shore District Court to three fraud charges for offences committed between October 2011 and January last year.

Catterall started working for Sovereign in 2006 and earned a promotion in May 2010.
According to court documents, Catterall used her work computer and legitimate invoices to create a template for fakes.

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After creating the invoices, "she personally walked them to accounts payable" where Sovereign staff processed the payments. Money went to recipients' accounts and most was funnelled back to Catterall.

Invoice amounts varied from $3403 to $30,000. The frequency of fake invoices increased with time, spiking in the month before last Christmas, when $140,000 was stolen.

Catterall told police she did it "for money, greed and to fund a methamphetamine habit."

Catterall's lawyer Marcus Edgar sought name suppression as publishing her name would hurt her family members, including elderly relatives, and those unaware of the charges.
Judge Eddie Paul refused suppression and encouraged Catterall to tell relatives what happened.

Sovereign did not say when Catterall was sacked but said policyholders' money was safe.

"The fraudulent activity... was an isolated incident and did not involve customer or adviser funds," a spokeswoman said. "There will be no impact on Sovereign's financial strength rating or our customers. We have taken the issue very seriously - operating with integrity is fundamental to our business and the financial services industry."

Sovereign was seeking to recover the money.

Catterall will be sentenced next month.

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Australian Symon Brewis-Westontook over as Sovereign chief executive last year. In 2011, Brewis-Weston married newsreader Sandra Sully.

Catterall, also known as Mechelle Arahanga, was declared bankrupt on April 7. In the bankruptcy notice, she was listed as a sickness beneficiary, living in Papakura. She could not be reached for comment.