$1.2m stolen to fund trips to sports events

HAMISH RUTHERFORD
Last updated 05:00 23/09/2011
Susan Terri Hagai
FRAUDSTER: Susan Terri Hagai.

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The woman who admitted stealing more than $1.2 million from a Wellington church society has told investigators she used the funds for her children's education and overseas trips to sporting events.

Susan Terri Hagai, 45, appeared to shed tears as Wellington District Court Judge Tom Broadmore warned her to expect a spell in prison when she is sentenced next month.

Hagai, of Titahi Bay, pleaded guilty to one charge of obtaining $1,242,750 by deception from the Hibernian Catholic Benefit Society between April 2004 and December last year, and four of causing a loss to Hoff Holdings of $15,089.

Founded in 1869, Hibernian is one of New Zealand's oldest benefit societies, with several thousand mainly elderly members. Hoff Holdings is a Wellington bar group part-owned by former All Black great Christian Cullen.

Hagai's lawyer, Christopher Stevenson, asked for a report for an electronically monitored sentence such as home detention.

Hagai had told investigators she used the money to pay for her children's education and to maintain her family's lifestyle. Money had gone on travel, both in New Zealand and overseas, to sporting events, she said.

Several family members and friends were in court supporting Hagai. Son Vaero Hagai, a former Junior Black Sox pitcher who reportedly attended United States training camps, and who has gone on to become a pilot, was not among them.

Outside court Des Darrock, a retiree who has had money with the society for more than 25 years, said Hagai was a "predator" who deserved a preventive sentence.

Mr Darrock lost less than $5000 through the fraud, but said he knew one woman who had lost $20,000, "safety money for her retirement", and another woman had lost $35,000 inherited from her parents' estate.

"So many small people have lost their savings. The members trusted her so much, and we're just so unhappy about what's taken place," he said.

Hagai began working for Hibernian in 1993, although the convictions relate to offending that took place since 2004.

As office administrator in a staff of three, she took phone calls from members at Hibernian's Dixon St headquarters.

Former colleagues have said she would have known which society members were actively using their accounts, and which were dormant.

Late last year she was made redundant. However, Hibernian president Mike McBride said this was a coincidence, because the society had outsourced its administration to accountancy firm Munro Benge.

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It was only months later that the society discovered funds were missing. Investors in the society's credit union have been warned that up to half of their funds could be lost.

Mr McBride said the society had deliberately made no attempt to contact Hagai since a joint police and Serious Fraud Office investigation began in May, although a board meeting in Wellington today would discuss "where and who we can recover funds from".

After leaving Hibernian, Hagai worked part-time for Hoff Holdings, owners of the Four Kings and Electric Avenue bars.

Matt McLaughlin, a director of Hoff Holdings, said her performance was "adequate" for about five months, when suddenly she began directing some of the company's direct debit payments into her own accounts.

After a decade in business with no big problems with staff, the episode had knocked his trust, Mr McLaughlin said.

- The Dominion Post

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