Te Awamutu accountant guilty of theft

A plan to make money importing cigarettes from South America and India has ended with a Waikato accountant guilty of fraud charges and his investors out of pocket to the tune of more than $100,000.

A jury of five women and seven men took six hours to find Te Awamutu accountant Gary Malcolm Hobbs, 45, guilty on 14 of 15 charges of theft by a person in a special relationship.

The trial, in the Hamilton District Court, heard there was no dispute as to whether Hobbs took the money but the trial boiled down to whether he was authorised to.

Hobbs and his business partner, Christian Brown, set up South American Tobacco Group Ltd to supply North Island dairies with cheap cigarettes from Argentina and India.

The Waikato Times first highlighted concern over Hobbs' dealings in 2010 when his former business partner Christian Brown, went to the Serious Fraud Office (SFO) claiming millions of dollars in investors' money was missing.

Investors the Times spoke to had ploughed between $70,000 and $500,000 into the business.

The company aimed to set up a tobacco growing and cigarette manufacturing base in Samoa but it folded in 2009 when it ran out of money.

Health Ministry records show that in 2008 the company imported about half a tonne of cigarettes, selling each of the 29,635 packets for $8.90. The company was selling brands V8 Smooth, V8 Special and Red 1.

The company's website said it was based in Zurich, Switzerland, and started from small beginnings, eventually positioning itself as a global manufacturer of high quality cigarette brands.

Hobbs and Mr Rose were struck off the register of chartered accountants in 2010 for conduct unbecoming of an accountant and for bringing the profession into disrepute.

The SFO laid charges in November last year, totalling more than $370,000 but Hobbs was found guilty of taking about $320,000.

Oparau farmer Neil Sydney Scott hired Hobbs as his accountant in 1999.

The court heard $140,000 was transferred from Mr Scott's family trust account to South American Tobacco with him unaware of the total until he spoke to a fellow investor in 2009.

Hobbs repaid $40,000 to the Scotts before the company went into liquidation.

A further $232,000 was transferred from a second client's account - the family trust of Richard Montague Gilbert, also a farmer.

Acting chief executive for the SFO Simon McArley said the prosecution was an important one for the SFO as it struck at the trust needed between a small-town professional and their clients.

"As a trusted adviser, Mr Hobbs let his clients down.

"This not only impacted directly on them but at a local level it undermines the good faith that people should be able to place in professional services such as chartered accountants."

Hobbs was a qualified chartered accountant and a member of the New Zealand Institute of Chartered Accountants (NZICA). Following an NZICA investigation into Hobbs Rose and allegations of client funds being mismanaged, Hobbs' NZICA membership was cancelled in 2010.

Hobbs was remanded and will be sentenced in February.

Waikato Times