A trial like no other

Last updated 10:02 24/08/2014
scf trial

FIRST DAY IN COURT: South Canterbury Finance accused Edward Sullivan, from left, Robert White and Lachie McLeod enter the dock on March 12.

wayne williams
FIRST APPEARANCE: Media wait outside the Timaru Courthouse for the five South Canterbury Finance accused to arrive for their first appearance on January 16, 2012. 3 News cameraman Simon Morrow and one News cameraman Wayne Williams were among them.

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After five months the South Canterbury Finance (SCF) trial has come to an end, with verdicts to be delivered in October. Reporter Emma Bailey sat through the case against former SCF directors Edward Sullivan and Bob White and former chief executive Lachie McLeod in the High Court at Timaru.

As the media throng dissipated it became clear these three were not the Timaru courthouse's regular clientele. Dressed in suits and armed with a team of some of the country's best and most expensive lawyers; Edward Sullivan, Bob White and Lachie McLeod were even given a security key card to come and go from the court as they pleased.

When they entered the dock on March 12 charged with what the Serious Fraud Office (SFO) called the "largest corporate fraud in New Zealand", their every move was captured by multiple TV cameras, photographers and reporters.

The three faced 19 charges under the Crimes Act; including theft by a person in a special relationship; obtaining by deception; false statements by the promoter of a company; and false accounting - each carrying maximum penalties ranging from seven to 10 years' jail.

They were arraigned; Sullivan's "not guilty" plea bellowing out, as the ashen trio had all the charges put to them, while in the public gallery, McLeod's wife wiped away tears.

They were then given permission to leave the dock and sit with their lawyers throughout the trial.

As soon as the case started, moves were made to end it, with an unsuccessful attempt to have the judge recuse himself because of a perceived bias. It was the first of many delays to come.

The Crown opened and focused on the $1.58 billion paid out under the Crown guarantee following SCF's collapse in 2010, with the media hanging on to every word.

Soon though, the unravelling of the finer detail of the key transactions began, and the out-of- town media went off to the next big national story.

As the witnesses were called to give evidence against their former colleagues and associates they would make fleeting eye contact with the accused, with a nod sometimes or a smile, seemingly acknowledging the awkwardness of the situation.

The trial settled into a pattern, with McLeod's wife a regular in the public gallery, sometimes accompanied by Sullivan's, each taking turns to bring in lunch for the men and their lawyers - lawyers whose charge out rates range between $250 and $400 an hour.

A couple of members of the public would regularly call in to watch the trial and chat among themselves.

The three accused seemed to relax as the trial progressed. Sullivan and White would often mumble to each other, while McLeod was more distant from the two and at times looked bored.

The defence opened, with character witnesses called. McLeod and White seemed relieved to hear someone speaking favourably of them after months of hearing the case against them.

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The national media contingent returned for the defence opening and in a flash were gone again as expert witnesses were called to give a different view of the contentious transactions.

The trial had its lighter moments. Counsel and the judge would verbally spar over issues, but at times would share a joke. The day McLeod was quarantined to the back of the court with suspected whooping cough and wearing a face mask was too much for some. His own counsel Marc Corlett had to leave the court to contain himself and Justice Paul Heath seemed bemused by the sight.

It felt like the trial that would never end, with the accused visibly frustrated by repeated delays and no doubt worrying about their mounting legal bill.

Over 61 days, 40 witnesses were called, 3000 pages of transcript generated and hundreds of documents pored over.

Finally it was the time for the closings - each taking a week - to sum up one of New Zealand's longest and most expensive criminal trials. Closings from the three defence counsel drew a full public gallery, mostly McLeod's supporters.

In an unusual step, Justice Heath thanked the three men for their conduct during the trial, saying it "would have been a very difficult experience". One gallery member commented, "He would not have said that if they were axe murderers, would he."

And then it was over. The trial, which had been all-consuming for so many months, had come to an end. It felt like we should have clapped, but ever present was the knowledge it was not a performance or a play, and the fate of the three was still to be determined. For the next few weeks, the trio will be in limbo, staring down possible prison sentences and waiting for the judge's verdict in October.

- The Timaru Herald

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