Preschool's $150k lost in casino spree

An Auckland man who stole $150,000 from a preschool where he volunteered spent it all at casinos in six months.

Hemi Jay Matenga, 30, was jailed for 22 months after pleading guilty to a charge of theft by a person in a special relationship between December 2012 and May 2013. The sentencing judge at Waitakere District Court refused to grant a reparation order and now the Nor Western Cook Island Early Childhood Centre has been left with a mammoth deficit.

Green Party co-leader Metiria Turei said it was one of dozens of cases where money was stolen from needy community groups and her amendment to the Criminal Proceeds Act was designed to address the problem. The bill, which would have put the obligation on casinos to return stolen money, was voted down by National and its coalition partners at its first reading in 2012.

"We really do need to make a change in the law," Turei said. "The casinos cannot be allowed to continue to receive [stolen] money. They have a responsibility to manage gambling addiction and they don't do a good enough job of that."

SkyCity refuted that claim. "We take our responsibilities in this area very seriously and work closely with the Department of Internal Affairs and the police. Our staff are highly trained and vigilant for any suspicious transactions or activity."

Between 2010 and 2012 the Ranui-based preschool, which has capacity for 25 children, received scathing reports from the Education Review Office. Governance, staff morale and educational outcomes were all highlighted as problem areas, but those issues were addressed by a new management team which took over at the start of last year.

Matenga, who was part of the previous regime, remained on a voluntary basis as the treasurer and signatory for the centre's two bank accounts. While the new staff worked to fix the inherited problems, Matenga bled their bank accounts dry. The former treasurer transferred $149,005 into his personal bank account and some he withdrew as cash. The stolen money was largely spent at Auckland and Hamilton casinos, according to the police summary of facts.

In their victim impact statement, the centre's management said Matenga had redirected bank statements and paid enough bills to avoid suspicion. "We were far too trusting and we continue to feel guilt and shame for what Hemi has done and for our part in not keeping a close enough eye on his activity," they said.

After the offending was discovered, staff went for eight weeks without being paid and centre administrator Melanie Smith said the long hours of unpaid work put huge stress on her family.

Despite the massive setback, parents had rallied behind the beleaguered preschool. For five months they could not afford a cleaner so families took turns cleaning every afternoon. Centre manager Taokia Gill said it was everyone's determination that had kept the doors open. "We're getting stronger and stronger every day," she said.

Gill said it had been incredibly difficult to get any funding because of what had happened and they were reliant on the goodwill of the Education Ministry. A ministry spokesman confirmed the centre had received annual payments over the last three years of about $250,000.

Turei's bill cannot be put in back in the ballot this term but she said if the Green Party was part of the next Government, she would attempt to introduce it. The Department of Internal Affairs said there were no recorded figures for the amount of stolen money gambled in casinos and a spokeswoman highlighted the "Host Responsibility" - casinos' responsibility to exclude problem gamblers.

Sunday Star Times