The lover of a senior Ports of Auckland manager turned fraudster will likely join her partner in crime behind bars after the pair stole more than $368,000 of Auckland ratepayers' money.
Litia Vuniduvu was today found guilty by a jury after a two-week trial at the Auckland District Court of 50 charges of dishonestly using a document.
She had been caught alongside former Ports of Auckland manager Paul Wayne Bainbridge when an elaborate and lengthy fake invoice scheme was uncovered.
The pair swindled the Auckland Council-owned company out of $368,842.50 during a three-year period.
Hundreds of thousands more of ratepayer dollars were spent on the investigation into the pair and the port's legal fees throughout the lengthy court process, which began some two years ago.
Vuniduvu, who arrived in New Zealand from Fiji in 2007, first met Bainbridge on an internet dating website in 2012, court documents released to the Herald reveal.
The duo were quickly entangled in a romantic relationship, despite Bainbridge being married.
Their lies soon turned to crime.
Bainbridge had been 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.
In December 2013, the first of several dozens of bogus invoices were sent to Ports of Auckland.
They were from Vuniduvu, but under the guise of the name 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 kept rolling 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. The couple had been caught in an audit by Deloitte.
The Ports of Auckland's senior staff were "shocked", the company said in a victim impact statement to the court, obtained by the Herald.
Bainbridge was considered an "experienced, trust worthy 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".
The investigation cost Ports of Auckland $72,241, while legal fees for the ports to the end of March 2017 were $117,631.
The total legal fees cost is understood to be somewhat higher to account for the prosecution of Vuniduvu.
The Ports of Auckland also engaged Bainbridge in a civil claim to recover the stolen money.
The company has spent further money on external experts training its staff to identify and review suspicious transactions.
Bainbridge had also given his lover a Ports of Auckland-issued phone and racked up a $1829 bill, the investigation found. The phone was recovered but irreparably damaged.
"Such an abuse of trust has also affected our reputation and the trust in place between [Ports of Auckland] and our employees, and with our shareholder," the statement said.
After pleading guilty, Bainbridge was jailed for three years and one month in December 2017 by Judge Brooke Gibson.
When sentencing him, the judge said he was concerned the fraudster had minimised his criminality by claiming the illegality was not the fraud but rather employing his girlfriend.
"Clearly, this is completely at odds with the summary of facts to which you have pleaded guilty and is little more than an attempt to minimise the extent of your own criminality," Judge Gibson said.
He called it a "fall from grace" for a man described by others as a "hard-working, loyal employee".
One letter of support for Bainbridge also attempted to place the blame with Ports of Auckland, which claimed a lack of governance practices put Bainbridge in a bad position.
"There is no one responsible for this offending other than yourself," Judge Gibson said.
"Your employer was not responsible for it. Blaming your employer for the offending is not only illogical but is concerning in that if that is a view held by people of high professional or business standing, it only emphasises the need for deterrence and denunciation as part of sentences that are imposed on people who are eventually caught and convicted."
Bainbridge's motivation, the judge continued, was for his and Vuniduvu's personal gain.
"The abuse of trust was significant and because the employer felt you were a responsible employee and you occupied a fairly high position, you were able to take advantage of that trust and offend in the way that you did and, clearly, there was pre-meditation."
The scam cost Bainbridge not only his career but also his marriage, with Judge Gibson commenting that the fraudster appeared to have alienated his children.
Bainbridge was ordered to serve at least half of his prison term before he was eligible for parole.
Vuniduvu, whose initial trial had been aborted last September after new evidence emerged, will be sentenced later this year.