Bill Express finance head jailed after successful ASIC appeal

The collapse of Bill Express continues to impact the Australian business world nearly five years after its failure, with an executive of the company sent to jail yesterday.

Peter Couper, the former chief financial officer of the company, was sentenced to 22 months in jail by the Victorian Court of Appeal and fined $10,000.

The sentence came following an appeal by the Australian Securities and Investments Commission, after a previous decision in which Couper was given a suspended sentence in July 2012.

The judgment from Justice Tate stated Couper’s involvement in the business could potentially erode public confidence in financial markets.

“It is tempting to consider ‘financial crimes’ as wholly distinct from crimes involving physical violence or destruction of property. But crimes which impair the fair, orderly and transparent conduct of financial markets carry with them a measure of criminal culpability comparable to other more traditional offences,” Justice Tate found.

Couper was originally sentenced last year after he pleaded guilty to four charges, including falsifying financial records and lying to the company’s auditor – and to ASIC itself.

Couper was the financial officer of Bill Express’s parent company, OnQ Group. The two businesses, which provided payment solutions for hundreds of companies and operated thousands of payment outlets, collapsed in July of 2008.

The collapse affected several thousand newsagents which used the Bill Express payment system.

In the most recent judgment, Justice Tate said the previous sentence was “manifestly inadequate”.

“Not only was there an error in the sentence first imposed but I also consider that a different sentence should be imposed.”

Justice Tate also said in his judgment that this particular crime involved a “fraud perpetrated on the general public”.

ASIC deputy chair Belinda Gibson said in a statement the case is an example of how the regulator will respond when faced with anyone who lies about their involvement in such activity.

“This judgment from the Victorian Court of Appeal reinforces the importance of the market not being misled and the very serious consequences for company officers who breach their obligations under the Corporations Act 2001 and who then mislead ASIC.

“They can expect to be prosecuted and for ASIC to seek jail terms in appropriate cases,” Gibson said.

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