4 Sep 2018

Former Waitangi Treaty Grounds trust finance head admits $1.2m theft

4:38 pm on 4 September 2018

The man who was in charge of the finances for the trust that cares for the Waitangi Treaty Grounds took $1.2 million and spent it on cosmetic surgery and adult entertainment.

Exterior signage at the Manukau District Court

Photo: RNZ / Claire Eastham-Farrelly

Wallace Tamamotu Te Ahuru appeared in the Manukau District Court this morning, where he admitted two charges of obtaining by deception and seven of using forged documents.

Te Ahuru was the man who held the purse strings for the Trust charged with caring for one of the most historically significant sites in the country - The Waitangi Treaty Grounds.

The site includes James Busby's homestead - the site of the signing of the Declaration of Independence in 1835, and five years later, Te Tiriti o Waitangi.

It fell into disrepair but was eventually bought by the Governor General Lord Bledisloe and gifted to the country in 1934.

Te Ahuru was the corporate services manager but used his position to transfer $1.2 million of the trust's money to his own accounts. He spent the money on a new vehicle, cosmetic surgery, gambling and adult entertainment.

Dressed in a suit, the 30-year-old stood briefly in the dock where his lawyer Jeremy Bioletti entered guilty pleas on his client's behalf.

Mr Bioletti told RNZ his client returned voluntarily from Australia.

"He hasn't put the state to any expense to bring him back and he's pleaded guilty and accepted responsibility straight off. He knows what he did was pretty bad and he knows that he's going to be punished for it."

Te Ahuru began working for the Trust in 2012 before moving to its commercial arm - Waitangi Limited - in 2016, when his offending began.

According to the agreed summary of facts, he made 43 payments to his personal account.

The trust required two signatories to authorise payments from its account but Te Ahuru got around this by using the name of a former employee and on other occasion the name of a colleague who was away on sick leave.

Mr Bioletti was not hopeful that any of the money would be paid back.

"I don't think so because part of what occurred involved him trying to recoup money to pay it back and unfortunately, in that process, he lost more money."

When the auditor started asking questions, Te Ahuru forged invoices.

The auditor didn't ask any further questions.

Today in court, Mr Bioletti asked to refer the case to a Restorative Justice Conference.

"If there is anything that can be done to help that situation, I think he would like to do it but, you know, he can only make the offer and, you know, we would entirely understand if it was turned down flat."

It is unknown if the trust will take part.

Despite repeated phone calls and a text message, the trust's chair Pita Tipene did not return phone calls.

A Waitangi source told RNZ that Te Ahuru was a trusted staff member, recruited from Rotorua and they were devastated by his dishonesty.

He said the trust was extremely frugal since the offending and although no staff were laid off, some planned projects were put on the backburner.

The trust receives no government funding and relies largely on visitor fees for income.

It has plans to develop a museum to commemorate the Māori Battalion.

Regional Economic Minister Shane Jones said he had concerns about the trust's commercial arm and previously suggested it be shut down.

"Well, the reality is, we have to take them at their word that they've dealt with the issue, they got the SFO [Serious Fraud Office] involved, they've been very open, and I'm told it was a comprehensive, thorough investigation and mo one else is involved but for the person who has committed the crime.

"I hope he gets some help from his whānau because his mental health will be under tremendous pressure."

Mr Jones was assured by the board that changes to their systems had been made since the offending.

Te Ahuru's been remanded in custody and will be sentenced in November.