“It’s the profile of the most trusted individual, in a position of trust, like an accountant or bookkeeper. They usually never take leave, and someone who never allows anyone access to their system would go to the length of taking their laptops with them while they are on holiday so that they can continue working. They are usually caught in the moment of forced absence from work.” (Specialised Commercial Crimes Court as reported by News24)
Our courts report a surge in serious cases of theft from employers by their most trusted employees – often bookkeepers and accountants. The greater the trust placed in these dishonest individuals, the more they steal and the longer they get away with it.
Particularly in more serious cases, employers should lay criminal charges as well as instituting disciplinary proceedings. Criminal courts are imposing hefty deterrent sentences, and the Labour Court has confirmed that laying charges does not prejudice the simultaneous disciplinary process.
Minimum sentences apply
Firstly, minimum sentencing provisions apply when large amounts have been stolen. Even first offenders must be sentenced to a minimum of 15 years’ imprisonment for any fraud or theft involving more than R500,000 (R100,000 for persons acting together or R10,000 for law enforcement officers) unless “substantial and compelling circumstances exist which justify the imposition of a lesser sentence”.
Let’s look at some recent cases –
- 50 years for a R537m theft: Over some two decades of employment in a position of trust as an accountant, an employee admitted to 336 counts relating to thefts totalling an astonishing R537m. She had tried to cover up with fraudulent VAT claims and although her lavish lifestyle (she spent R5m on one specific day) attracted attention, it seems that it was only an anonymous tip off that eventually led to her detection and arrest. She was sentenced by a Specialised Commercial Crimes Court (SCCC) to 50 years behind bars.
- 10 years for a R13.4m fraud: A creditor’s clerk, once again in a position of trust, pleaded guilty to 972 counts of fraud totalling over R13.4m and stretching over 9 years, only discovered when she went on sick leave. The mitigating factors in her case (she has health issues and is 65 years old) led the High Court to reduce her 15-year sentence to a below-the-minimum 10 years.
- 18 years for a R14m theft: A financial manager stole over R14m, leaving the couple who had trusted him with their finances without their life savings (including a cancer diagnosis payout) and on their knees financially and emotionally. The Court’s sentence of 3 years more than the minimum reflected its finding that the aggravating factors justified removing the manager from society, despite his gambling addiction and previous clean record.
- 15 to 30 years for a R52m fraud? A trusted store accountant “viewed as a brother” by its traumatised owners (one of whom even contemplated suicide), admitted to two counts of fraud totalling R52m as a result of his gambling addiction. He will only be sentenced in March, but it seems from media reports that he is unlikely to receive less than the minimum 15 years’ imprisonment per count, possibly to run concurrently.
The Labour Court confirms you can do both
A municipal manager with 15 years’ service was criminally charged with very serious frauds. He asked the Labour Court to stop his employer’s disciplinary process against him, arguing that in defending himself at the disciplinary hearing he might have to give self-incriminating evidence.
The Labour Court disagreed, finding that the employee had several layers of protection available to him in the criminal trial, and clearing the employer to proceed with the disciplinary hearing simultaneously. In fact, said the Court, “It is tantamount to an abuse of court process by a person holding a managerial position using court processes to prevent his employer from subjecting him to a disciplinary process under the guise of protecting his constitutional rights.” It accordingly ordered him to pay all costs on the punitive attorney and client scale – a very unusual censure in labour law matters where both sides are normally left to cover their own costs.
Disclaimer: The information provided herein should not be used or relied on as professional advice. No liability can be accepted for any errors or omissions nor for any loss or damage arising from reliance upon any information herein. Always contact your professional adviser for specific and detailed advice.