When the owners of a boutique New Zealand clothing label hired an accountant to help with their profitable and expanding business they didn't expect $2 million to disappear.
After several years they discovered their accountant was stealing from them - using fake documents, accounts and overinflated costs to orchestrate her fraud against the Bettie Monroe fashion business.
"It was years of theft and deception," Bettie Monroe owner Helen Fraser said.
"It not only profoundly affected our company, but our suppliers and manufacturers. The betrayal, shock and horror took so much from us, but today justice has finally prevailed."
This afternoon the accountant, Roopa Patel, 57, was sentenced in the Auckland District Court by Judge Ema Aitken to four years and eight months' in jail.
She pleaded guilty to two charges of theft by person in a special relationship shortly before her trial was due to start in March.
Judge Aitken said Patel's theft was for her own personal gain and the abuse of trust was "rather extreme".
"I cannot overstate the impact on [the victims]," the judge added.
"The impact has been profound and enduring and it is a significant aggravating factor."
Patel's offending, which began in 2014 and continued until 2019, began to unravel when IRD said Bettie Monroe owed $180,000 in unpaid taxes in 2018.
Fraser said the sentencing marked the end of "many long, painful and harrowing years".
Her business partner Lucy Thomas said Patel's crimes nearly bankrupted the company, led to the loss of key customers and suppliers, and the closure of three retail stores.
"We are not high-flying businesswomen. We're just two friends who loved making clothes and dreamed of turning it into a business," Thomas said.
"Thankfully we have a strong brand and amazing customers, and their loyalty got us through; while rebuilding our company and building up a criminal and civil case against Ms Patel."
Fraser and Thomas believe Patel is yet to show any remorse after she "venomously" denied culpability during a civil case before police involvement, the court heard today.
The civil proceeding ended in a settlement of $380,000 for Fraser and Thomas, however, the business partners said much of the money has gone to pay legal fees. They asked Judge Aitken to order reparation for the stolen $1.95m and further $586,000 in bank, accountacy and legal fees.
But Patel's lawyer, Paul Wicks QC, told the court his client "has nothing".
She has close to $1m in debt and has filed for bankruptcy after poorly managing her accounting practice Elite Solutions NZ, Wicks said.
"She doesn't have the money that she has stolen squirrelled away somewhere."
Judge Aitken told Patel there was "very little, if any, evidence that you are genuinely remorseful".
Although reparation was unlikely to be paid in full, the judge told Patel: "Justice could not be said to be done to your victims without an order for reparation."
She ordered $300,000 in reparation be made to Fraser and Thomas.
Business partners Lucy Thomas (left) and Helen Fraser, pictured in 2010, founded the boutique clothing label. (Photo / File)
Fraser and Thomas founded Bettie Monroe in 2003 by selling their handmade garments at the Aotea Square markets. In 2008, they opened a store in Whangamatā and after some success more shops popped up in Mt Maunganui, Cambridge and other towns around the country.
Patel was hired as their accountant in 2011 and the relationship appeared to begin well.
"Before we hired her we were doing everything ourselves," Thomas said.
"Once Helen had her son we needed help with our accounts, paying our staff, suppliers, so we outsourced our accounts to Roopa's accounting firm."
Thomas said in late 2014 Bettie Monroe began to lose money and sank into hundreds of thousands of dollars of debt - despite a large profit and expansion to six boutiques around New Zealand.
"We repeatedly questioned the accounts Roopa gave us and couldn't understand how we could be going into debt," Thomas said.
Fraser added the pair trusted Patel completely.
"Like you would with your doctor or lawyer, but she undermined and manipulated us."
Patel would pay IRD, staff wages and suppliers on Bettie Monroe's behalf. Her offending involved producing fake tax documents, while money to cover all company expenses was deposited into her "trust account".
As the company's debt increased, Patel produced bogus accounts to hide the losses under certain stores, leading to the closure of three shops, Fraser and Thomas said.
As the debt mounted and paying the mortgage and groceries became a struggle, new mothers Fraser and Thomas began to suffer exteme levels of stress.
Thomas said she would wake up in cold sweats, shaking and terrified, wondering how they would get out from under the debt, save the business and retain staff.
She also developed internal bleeding and was diagnosed with breast cancer. Her marriage also ended.
Thomas said Patel incrementally stole more and more money, including the largest sum when she was undergoing a mastectomy.
"I will never be the same, I am not out of the woods yet from cancer.
"She has affected me to the core," she said, calling Patel a cowardly woman.
Fraser said Bettie Monroe will now rebuild.
"We knew we couldn't just walk away – we didn't want to let our suppliers down, and we had 30 employees who depended on us for their livelihoods," she said.
"We took out loans, and it was more blood, sweat and tears. She had taken everything from us, but we wouldn't let her take our business.'
She said they were relieved to eventually put the case behind them.
"But what we have realised is that, hey, we actually have an awesome business. We are employing, making and producing clothes in New Zealand. It's our incredible team and our loyal customers that have got us through."