After several years, they discovered their accountant was stealing from them – using false documents, accounts and inflated costs to orchestrate his fraud against fashion company Bettie Monroe.
“It was years of theft and deception,” said Helen Fraser, owner of Bettie Monroe.
“It not only deeply affected our business, but also our suppliers and manufacturers. Betrayal, shock and horror have taken hold of us so much, but today justice has finally prevailed.”
This afternoon, accountant Roopa Patel, 57, was sentenced by Judge Ema Aitken by Judge Ema Aitken to four years and eight months in prison by Auckland District Court.
She pleaded guilty to two charges of theft per person in a special relationship shortly before her trial began in March.
Judge Aitken said Patel’s theft was for his personal gain and the breach of trust was “rather extreme”.
“I cannot stress enough the impact on [the victims]”, added the judge.
“The impact has been deep and lasting and it is a significant aggravating factor.”
Patel’s offense, which began in 2014 and continued until 2019, began to unravel when the IRD said Bettie Monroe owed $ 180,000 in unpaid taxes in 2018.
Fraser said the conviction marked the end of “many long, painful and heartbreaking years.”
His business partner, Lucy Thomas, said Patel’s crimes nearly bankrupted the company, resulted in the loss of key customers and suppliers and the closure of three retail stores.
“We’re not high-flying businesswomen. We’re just two friends who loved making clothes and dreamed of making a business out of it,” Thomas said.
“Fortunately, we have a strong brand and amazing customers, and their loyalty has got us through; while rebuilding our business and setting up a criminal and civil case against Ms. Patel. “
Fraser and Thomas believe Patel has yet to show remorse after “venomously” denying his guilt in a civil case before police intervened, the court said today.
The civil proceedings ended in a settlement of $ 380,000 for Fraser and Thomas, however, business partners said much of the money was used to pay for legal fees. They asked Judge Aitken to order redress for the stolen $ 1.95 million and an additional $ 586,000 in banking, accounting and legal fees.
But Patel’s attorney, Paul Wicks QC, told the court his client “had nothing.”
She is nearly $ 1 million in debt and filed for bankruptcy after mismanaging her accounting firm Elite Solutions NZ, Wicks said.
“She doesn’t have the money she stole from somewhere.”
Judge Aitken told Patel that there was “very little evidence, if any, that you really have remorse.”
While it is unlikely that the full reparation will be paid, the judge told Patel without emotion: “You cannot say that justice is served to your victims without a reparation order.”
She ordered that $ 300,000 in damages be paid to Fraser and Thomas.
Fraser and Thomas founded Bettie Monroe in 2003 by selling their handmade clothes in Aotea Square markets. In 2008 they opened a store in Whangamatā and after some success other stores have popped up in Mt Maunganui, Cambridge and other cities across the country.
Patel was hired as an accountant in 2011 and the relationship seemed to be off to a good start.
“Before we hired him, we did everything ourselves,” Thomas said.
“After Helen had her son, we needed help with our accounts, paying our staff, our suppliers, so we outsourced our accounts to Roopa’s accounting firm.”
Thomas said that by the end of 2014, Bettie Monroe had started losing money and taking hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt – despite making a big profit and expanding to six stores in New Zealand.
“We repeatedly questioned the accounts Roopa gave us and couldn’t figure out how we could get into debt,” Thomas said.
Fraser added that the pair trusted Patel completely.
“As you would your doctor or lawyer, but she undermined and manipulated us.”
Patel would pay IRD, staff salaries and suppliers on behalf of Bettie Monroe. His offense was to produce false tax documents, while the money to cover all company expenses was deposited into his “trust account”.
As the company’s debt grew, Patel produced fake accounts to hide losses at some stores, resulting in the closure of three stores, Fraser and Thomas said.
As the debt grew and paying off the mortgage and groceries became difficult, new mothers Fraser and Thomas began to suffer from extreme stress levels.
Thomas said she would wake up in a cold sweat, shaking and terrified, wondering how they could get out of debt, save the business and retain staff.
She also developed internal bleeding and was diagnosed with breast cancer. Her marriage also ended.
Thomas said Patel gradually stole more and more money, including the larger sum when she had a mastectomy.
“I’ll never be the same again, I’m not out of the woods with cancer yet.
“She touched me deep inside me,” she said, calling Patel a cowardly woman.
Fraser said Bettie Monroe will now be rebuilding.
“We knew we couldn’t just walk away – we didn’t want to let down our suppliers, and we had 30 employees who depended on us for their livelihoods,” she said.
“We took out loans, and it was more blood and sweat and tears. She took everything from us, but we weren’t letting her take our things.”
She said they were relieved to end up putting the case behind them.
“But what we realized was, hey, we actually have a great business. We employ, manufacture and produce clothing in New Zealand. It’s our amazing team and loyal customers that have helped us. . “