The corporate watchdog will examine the sentence handed to one of the key culprits in the $250 million collapse of payments group Bill Express, who managed to avoid jail despite being found guilty of falsifying the group’s financial records.
The Victorian County Court has fined former Bill Express executive Peter Couper $10,000 and awarded him a 21 month suspended sentence after he pleaded guilty to four charges, which included falsifying financial records and lying to the company’s auditor and to ASIC.
Couper was chief financial officer of Bill Express’s parent company, OnQ Group, when the two companies collapsed in July 2008, owing creditors $250 million.
Bill Express provided payment solutions for hundreds of companies, with 14,000 payment outlets around Australia, about 3,500 of which were in newsagents.
The company’s creditors included prominent businessmen Gerry Harvey and Lindsay Fox, as well as ANZ, Telstra, Optus and Vodafone.
Victorian County Court Judge Liz Gaynor found Couper falsified $23.4 million worth of sales, credits and purchases for Bill Express.
These included three sales of $5.4 million each of preloaded SIM cards (known as “Simix stock”), a credit note worth $5.4 million, and a $1.875 million purchase of Simix stock, none of which existed.
The falsified records resulted in Bill Express recording additional profits of $3.525 million in June and December 2007 respectively, when in fact no such profits had been made.
An Australian Securities and Investment Committee spokesman told SmartCompany this morning the regulator’s lawyers are considering the sentence, but no final decision has been made on whether or not to appeal.
In sentencing Couper, Judge Gaynor said his actions had taken place “at the behest” of company founders Hal and Ian Christiansen, “in particular, Ian Christiansen”.
She praised Couper’s record of extensive community involvement, which included roles at his children’s kindergarten and primary school, as well as at his sons’ Scouting Association, the Freemasons Lodge, and the Glen Waverley Tennis Club, where Couper has been awarded a life membership and had the “Couper Award” for junior player of the season named after him.
She also noted a positive reference from a director of Bill Express liquidators PPP Advisory, who recognised Couper’s “assistance with securing a pre-appointment GST refund of circa $1.2 million”, after Bill Express was placed in administration.
“My concern is that you have been presented to me as a man of otherwise impeccable morals who under a particular situation of pressure abandoned those principles and engaged in behaviour which had the potential to deceive large numbers of persons in the community, that is actual or potential investors in a public company,” Judge Gaynor said.
“You would have known very well that what you did was entirely wrong.
“Ultimately, I have decided not to jail you. But you have come very close, indeed, Mr Couper, and you should leave this court with an acute sense of the disgraceful behaviour you have engaged in, and the fact that you will carry with you for the rest of your life a conviction in those terms against your name.” Gaynor said.
Gaynor told Couper he was “a weak man”, out of his depth.
She said she regarded the prospect of his re-offending as “negligible”, but “in my view, a sentence of imprisonment does need to be imposed to mark the seriousness of this offending.”
Couper is not the first Bill Express employee to be sentenced over the collapse.
In July 2010 the Victorian Supreme Court sentenced former Macquarie Group advisor Newton Chan to 20 months’ jail, 16 of which were suspended, after he pleaded guilty to eight counts of manipulating the Bill Express share price and one count of providing false or misleading information to ASIC officers.
A group of companies including Al Othman Holding and Voice & Data Telecommunications is currently suing Macquarie Group for $10 million over allegations Chan advised it to buy $9.5 million in Bill Express and OnQ Group shares.
In February 2011 another Bill Express colleague, Enzo Di Donato, was committed to stand trial on July 30, 2012 on three counts of providing false or misleading information to ASIC during an examination of trading in Bill Express shares prior to the company’s collapse.