Ministry of Transport fraudster Joanne Harrison had 'a destructive streak'

Joanne Harrison during her sentencing at Manukau District Court on Tuesday.

Joanne Harrison during her sentencing at Manukau District Court on Tuesday.

Jailed fraudster Joanne Harrison had a habit of leaving destruction in her wake, one estranged relative says.

"Nobody believed us when we told people what she had done, as she always came across as so sweet and innocent."

Harrison, 50, has been jailed for three years, seven months after swindling taxpayers out of some $723,000 while working for the Ministry of Transport.

Peter Mersi, the new Minsitry of Transport chief executive, says he's happy with the sentence handed down.

Peter Mersi, the new Minsitry of Transport chief executive, says he's happy with the sentence handed down.

Her relative cut ties with her several years ago, after what she called a destructive and hurtful relationship.

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"She is a complete piece of work and having had first hand experience with her, no actions she has undertaken would surprise me."

In Wellington, two of her former ministry colleagues described Harrison as persuasive, but divisive and glib.

Her ability to advance herself professionally was a concern to some colleagues, but until she disappeared for Canada and was accused of fraud, all they had was a bad feeling about her.

"She came across as caring and giving," one colleague said. "She would really be out to divide and conquer."

News of Harrison's fraud broke just days after new ministry chief executive Peter Mersi​ took over last July.

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Mersi was pleased at the sentence handed down in Manukau District Court on Tuesday.

"Joanne operated a sophisticated deception, where she abused her trusted senior position at taxpayers' expense," Mersi said.

"Through the calculated abuse of procurement practices at the Ministry, Harrison awarded contracts to entities that were created for her benefit."

"The point I would make is that anybody who's dealt with people who commit these crimes is they are typically quite sophisticated," previous chief executive Martin Matthews said earlier.

Harrison had previously worked in banking, insurance and public administration sectors.

In Australia, earlier this decade, Harrison was general manager of organisational development at Goulburn-Murray Water.

There, fraud allegations were made "against a former senior manager", the Weekly Times reported in August, soon after the latest fraud was exposed.

The same paper reported years earlier that the local police fraud squad was investigating Harrison.

"The probe centres on tens of thousands of dollars alleged to have been paid to Mrs Harrison," the Melbourne Observer reported. "An audit said there had been no illegal activity."

However, when asked about the case in November, Victoria Police would not say whether Harrison, also known as Joanne Sharp, was a person of interest in the case.

Her maiden name was Joanne Sidebottom​ and relatives said she grew up in Barnsley, England.

It's believed she attended Darton High School and after a previous marriage ended, married a policeman from England named Patrick Sharp. 

She chose Canada to flee to last year, before she was outed as a fraud suspect, flew back to New Zealand, and was arrested in Auckland.

Labour Transport spokeswoman Sue Moroney said the MoT fraud raised serious questions about the Ministry's background-checking processes.

"I'm yet to have any answers from the MoT about whether they specifically did police checks before they promoted her to a role where she had access to large amounts of taxpayers' money."

Moroney, who was in court for sentencing, said Judge Sanjay Patel and the Serious Fraud Office raised several issues that would merit further investigation.

But as for the sentences handed down, she said: "I'm pleased to see that justice has been served."

The SFO said an internal ministry investigation found suspicious payments "had been made to various entities" and the matter was referred to the SFO.

"The SFO gives a priority to cases concerning the loss of public money as this affects not only the government entity concerned but all New Zealanders," SFO Director, Julie Read said.

Police pursuing proceeds of crime litigation hope to recover as much as possible from Harrison's fraud, and are targeting a family home her husband owned near Kerikeri.

The civil case is ongoing.

 - Stuff

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