Te Awamutu office worker steals nearly $500k

BELINDA FEEK
Last updated 05:00 30/06/2014

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She worked for the firm for 40 years, first starting out as a fresh-faced 17-year-old straight from high school.

But by the time Sharyn Joy Ada McFarlane left the Te Awamutu law firm of Edmonds Judd, she'd fleeced them of nearly $500,000.

Police are confident she's stolen more - they just can't prove it - as ANZ bank records only go back seven years.

McFarlane's got nothing to show for the theft, either.

It appears she frittered the money away on gambling and booze, both of which she is addicted to.

McFarlane appeared in the Palmerston North District Court last month and pleaded guilty to six charges; false accounting by an employee, theft by failing to account, theft by a person in a special relationship, using an altered document and two charges of false accounting.

For the 15-year period up to July 24 last year, she stole $469,139.81.

Police, in a summary of facts, say that McFarlane is now "heavily mortgaged and she has significant credit card debt".

"She has no equity available to offer as reparation and is essentially insolvent."

She also now has health issues and is being cared for by a Palmerston North residential facility.

Fortunately for forensic investigators, they've been able to use Edmonds Judd records which takes the offending back to 1998 with a total 221 separate transactions.

But police believe it stretches as far back as 1988, stating they have identified a "large number of other transactions" as "almost certainly being misappropriations but they have been excluded because of the inability to be entirely accurate".

McFarlane began working at the firm in a junior role in 1973, before being promoted to office accountant in 1995. It was only after she left, in September last year after being made redundant, that her offending began to unravel after the firm was contacted by a client who wanted to discuss their affairs.

The client was initially reluctant to speak to anybody else at the firm as she'd been told to only deal with McFarlane.

However, when they did, they were surprised to learn that their funds had been regularly deposited into one of McFarlane's two ANZ accounts. One was used as a general account, the other for her fraud.

It was brazen at times. She would deposit money over and above her wages and openly declare them in her official account.

Initially, it was found there had been 74 separate transfers totalling $220,000 from seven separate clients.

The bulk of those transactions, 52, came from the trust account of an elderly client and amounted to $174,700.

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But after digging deeper, investigators found that McFarlane's offending was "extremely complex" and she'd used the seven accounts to launder the stolen money.

A further 38 client accounts were found to have funds siphoned from them.

Her method involved her taking a portion of funds deposited to the firm and putting them in her own bank account. Often she would create bogus client requests, sometimes coupled with a legitimate transaction for the client.

The largest single transaction was $10,000.

Of the funds stolen, $293,162.67 had been apportioned to the client it was stolen from. Forensic investigators were still working on where the remaining $175,977.14 has come from.

When initially confronted, McFarlane admitted having the second ANZ account and directing payments into it, but said she had only taken $26,000 since December 2012.

When contacted, Edmonds Judd managing partner Simon Brdanovic said McFarlane first came to the firm straight out of high school and eventually became a much-trusted employee.

"There's been a sense of shock and betrayal, really, that this has happened."

Brdanovic said the company hadn't suspected a thing until noticing the financial irregularities, eventually revealing her "extremely sophisticated" offending.

The company's forensic investigators were now concentrating on identifying which clients the outstanding monies belonged to.

"That's still taking a while to try and unearth it all and work out who has been affected."

McFarlane will be sentenced in the Palmerston North District Court in August.

- Waikato Times

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