Woman jailed for stealing £1.7 million from employer

Friday 15 October 2010 15:25 BST

A cashier at a firm of solicitors who stole £1.7 million over seven years to finance a luxurious lifestyle for herself and her husband was today jailed for five years.

Louise Martini, 36, who had worked for the firm since she was 16, bought jewellery from Chanel, shares in a racehorse and the lease of a pub in the village which supposedly inspired Ambridge in The Archers.

The cashier, who was earning £24,000 at the time of her arrest, also spent thousands on luxury holidays, designer clothes and stays in country house hotels.

Martini had been recruited straight from school by Solihull law firm Williamson and Soden, which completely trusted her, Gloucester Crown Court heard.

She was responsible for managing petty cash, client bank accounts and expenses and was given increasing responsibility throughout the near 20 years she worked at the firm.

But behind the scenes, Martini was forging cheques, stealing money and lying to her employers to cover her tracks.

Prosecutor Peter Grieves-Smith said: "It was a fraud that lasted just under seven years. The money was used to fund a life of luxury, with money spent on a race horse, cars and luxury shopping trips."

Between April 2002 and her dismissal in February last year Martini spent £11,000 on Chanel jewellery at Selfridges, more than £10,000 on Cartier jewellery, £9,500 at the designer online store Net-a-Porter, £3,000 at Harvey Nichols, and £500 in exclusive shoe shop Jimmy Choo.

She bought five cars, spending £56,000 on a Range Rover Sport V8 and £42,000 on an Audi A5 Quattro Coupe, and paid £3,300 for a trip to Las Vegas.

There were other expensive holidays to Venice, Lake Como in Italy and ski trips costing thousands of pounds, the court was told.

Martini bought the Crown Inn in Peopleton, Worcestershire, and later purchased the leasehold of The Bull's Head pub in Inkberrow, Worcestershire.

She spent £13,000 on stays at Ettington Park, a four-star hotel in a Grade I listed building in Stratford-upon-Avon, Warwickshire.

She also bought a house in leafy Solihull and a share of a racehorse, which cost £1,800 a month in stable fees alone, the court heard.

"The spending just goes on and on, month after month, on a variety of credit cards," Mr Grieves-Smith said.

During the seven-year fraud she regularly deceived the partners at the firm about the cheques presented to them for signing.

At one point she even created a fictitious file using her father's name to purchase a property. Martini was so trusted by her employers that she was even able to deceive the firm's auditors.

In 2008 an account in the client ledger was discovered to be £100,000 overdrawn, but she made an excuse and the firm accepted it.

"Throughout that period no blame can be attributed to anyone at Williamson and Soden who trusted her," Mr Grieves-Smith said.

"The client account money was used time after time to pay her credit card bill when she had gone out shopping.

"The level of trust placed in her was so high that she was able to access the accounts and change them externally."

It was only when Martini went on holiday that further irregularities were discovered and an internal investigation uncovered what she had been doing.

She was immediately suspended and, in February last year, sacked by the firm.

"At no stage did she accept when speaking to her employers before she was dismissed that any money was missing," the prosecutor said.

Fiona Warman, a consultant solicitor advocate at Williamson and Soden, said she had thought Martini was her friend.

She told police: "I thought she was a friend. I invited her into my home and entertained her."

Martini at first denied theft and said the partners at the law firm had been giving her regular cash amounts, of between £200 and £1,000 a month, as a bonus.

She later suggested to the police that her husband Richard Martini, 40 - whom she married in 2003 - had put her under pressure to take the cash.

Mr Martini was arrested in July last year but claimed he had not known she was stealing money and said he had believed her to be on a salary of £60,000 to £70,000 a year.

He claimed he was a 'kept' man who had to ask his wife for money because she controlled the accounts.

Mr Martini was charged with one count of money laundering but today the charge was formally dropped by the Crown Prosecution Service and he left the court a free man. The couple are now divorced.

Martini, of Griffin Lane, Solihull, West Midlands, admitted at an earlier hearing charges of theft and money laundering. Charges of forgery were ordered to lie on file.

Alan Landsbury, defending, said Martini had been undergoing counselling to come to terms with her offending since admitting her guilt and had recently lost a baby with her new partner.

"So far as her remorse is concerned, she instructs me that she is now remorseful," he said.

"She asks me to apologise on her behalf to her employers. She knows she is going to prison for a considerable time and she is terrified at the prospect.

"But at the same time she knows she has devastated her family and all of her friends.

"My plea upon her behalf is one of mercy."

In sentencing Martini, Judge Jamie Tabor QC said the partners at Williamson and Soden had placed compete trust in her.

"In April 2002 you began to systematically steal from the client account, thereby abusing the great trust they had in you," the judge said.

"Over the next seven years you plundered that account to quite a remarkable degree, which required you to lie and forge.

"You did this with calmness and a large degree of cunning. So cunning were you that you did not only fool your employers but the auditors.

"This money was not taken for need but greed."

The judge added: "The impact of your offending has been devastating. I do not exaggerate when I say the firm has been left on its knees through your actions.

"If there is genuine remorse it has come too late."

Martini wiped away tears as she was led away by dock officers.

A Proceeds of Crime hearing will be held later to strip Martini of her assets.

The law firm today welcomed the jailing of Martini and said it was "horrified" by her actions.

Senior partner Ian Williamson said: "I welcome the sentence as the final chapter, bringing closure to a story that for us began with the partners' discovery of Martini's fraudulent activities in February 2009 and her immediate dismissal.

"We were of course horrified at what she did and have worked closely with the police from the beginning.

"No client has suffered any loss, or been affected in any way, and none have complained.

"The funds were completely restored within a short time of the theft being discovered in February 2009.

"Thanks to our loyal and hard working partners and staff, our professional practice has carried on as normal throughout.

"This case shows that the criminal actions of a determined fraudster employed in a position involving a degree of trust can undermine the integrity of well-regulated accounting systems.

"We had a system of supervision in place and we used specialist accounting software in operation at over 600 firms of solicitors, with many thousands of individual users.

"No client ledger has ever been overdrawn. Indeed, the software system will not allow this to happen.

"No accounting irregularities were reported to us prior to our discovery, despite regular checks by our in-house accountant, who resigned in March 2009, and six-monthly reviews and annual reports from the independent Chartered Accountants who audited our records in a manner regulated by the Solicitors' Regulation Authority (SRA).

We also had additional external checks, none of which revealed any problem.

"Martini told us her husband was a successful businessman. We were unaware of much of her lifestyle outside the office.

"A new accounts team, very experienced in solicitors accounts, has been in place since March 2009, and with their help we have undertaken a very detailed review of our accounts function.

"We are entirely satisfied that nothing like this could happen to us again. We are looking to the future with confidence, having put the matter well behind us."

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