The demise of a 'Tahitian prince'

CHRIS BARCLAY
Last updated 05:00 20/03/2013

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When a security guard found Hohepa Morehu-Barlow snoring on the floor of his A$5.6 million (NZ$7m) riverside apartment, it was about to become the rudest awakening imaginable for the architect of Queensland's most embarrassing and simplistic embezzling scheme.

Appropriately, even the culmination of a three-day hunt for the Queensland Health employee who managed to siphon more than A$16m into a network of private bank accounts and bogus companies contained an element of farce.

The Queensland State Government neglected to change all the locks on Morehu-Barlow's opulent two-storey pad at New Farm on the Brisbane River so he was able to gain access in the early hours of December 12, 2011 - slipping past a security patrol - before taking a cocktail of drugs and lapsing into unconsciousness.

He was treated in a Brisbane hospital and transferred to a corrections centre, where he has spent the past 15 months.

The day of reckoning arrived in the Brisbane District Court yesterday. After pleading guilty to eight offences, including fraud as an employee, forgery, uttering a forged document and possessing drugs, he was jailed for 14 years by Judge Kerry O'Brien.

Typically, Morehu-Barlow was immaculately attired in a black suit; he waved to supporters and friends before the sentence was delivered.

Earlier this month his imported luxury items were auctioned off as the government sought reparation for the humiliating losses it incurred while the A$100,000-a-year corporate services finance officer managed to systematically divert millions to maintain an elaborate fantasy lifestyle that even friends found plausible until his arrest.

Morehu-Barlow's deception leaves a permanent scar on an organisation criticised in 2005 for failing to conduct sufficient background checks on Jayant Patel, an overseas-trained doctor who was jailed for seven years in 2010 after being convicted of three counts of manslaughter and one count of grievous bodily harm.

Morehu-Barlow has an angel's wings tattooed across his broad shoulders and must have sensed a divine presence was watching over him as his offending continued unabated despite concerns being raised about financial irregularities on his watch in August 2010 - three years into his appointment.

Former Queensland police commissioner Bob Atkinson, who retired last year, acknowledged shortly after Morehu-Barlow's arrest that concerns about an employee known as Joel Barlow - one of the New Zealander's many aliases - were forwarded to the Crime and Misconduct Commission, which simply referred them back to Queensland Health for an investigation which never took place.

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Checks might have disclosed that the man tasked with distributing payments to not-for-profit groups such as the Royal Flying Doctor Service and Cancer Council Queensland had fraud convictions before crossing the Tasman in 2003.

Morehu-Barlow arrived in Brisbane soon after being accused of ripping off a publicly funded charity event for children while employed by the Office of the Children's Commissioner and Child, Youth and Family.

In 1999 he was convicted of stealing more than $55,000 from the Inland Revenue Department and $32,000 by using a fraudulent Westpac Bank account but avoided jail and instead served eight months' periodic detention.

A quietly spoken co-worker, and the life of the party after hours in Fortitude Valley club land, he employed stealth and a steady hand to orchestrate what then Queensland premier Anna Bligh described as "the most serious breach of trust".

She also described Morehu-Barlow's deceit as a sophisticated scam, though it appeared it was as simple as setting up an entity with a viable business name.

Morehu-Barlow would forge the signature of a superior and redirect grants for charities to his own fictitious organisations such as Healthy Initiatives and Choices.

He registered that business in September 2008 and made no attempt to hide his dubious accounting practices - the Queensland Health annual reports of 2008-09, 2009-10 and 2010-11 detail payments of A$180,000, A$1.37m and A$2.56m respectively to Healthy Initiatives and Choices.

It took an audacious attempt to transfer A$11m of public money to one of his own companies on November 17, 2011, for the penny to finally drop.

A mid-level QH staff member's computer check revealed it was set up in Morehu-Barlow's name.

In January last year he was formally charged with embezzling more than A$16 million. Bligh's government had already moved to freeze about A$12m worth of Morehu-Barlow's assets.

Luxury cars, jet skis, a baby grand piano and a A$95,000 Bang and Olufsen television/audio package that arrived from Denmark while he was in jail were in the 29-page catalogue of property seized.

He had 22 sets of rosary beads, 98 business shirts, 36 pairs of designer sunglasses and to emphasise the state government's determination to recover every possible cent they claimed a blanket, pillow and A$44 Medicare refund cheque.

Famously generous, the eldest of five siblings also lavished gifts on his Brisbane-based brother and sister Beau and Kelly-Ann Barlow.

More than 50 items were seized from Kelly-Ann's property, including a black 2007 Audi A4 sedan; Beau lost possession of four paintings, an Amalfi mirror and Breitling watch while a Brisbane financial adviser had to repay a A$50,000 "gift/loan".

To hide his deceit he told people he was a Tahitian prince who had to work in order to gain his inheritance.

Lawyer Neil Smart, who did legal work for Morehu-Barlow, believed he was a member of the Tahitian royal family.

"We've all been duped, I feel the most stupid of everyone," said Mr Smart, hours before Morehu-Barlow was apprehended.

The self-proclaimed ‘prince', certainly cultivated a regal aura - he signed "HRH" (His Royal Highness) when staying at the Balinese Beach House on Queensland's Sunshine Coast.

His iPod was also engraved with the letters HRH.

- © Fairfax NZ News

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