It took a jury of seven women and five men just an hour to find a former dental clinic receptionist guilty of stealing $9802 from the business she worked for.
Cambridge woman Annette Myra Higgins, 45, had been on trial for five and a half days in the Hamilton District Court facing charges of stealing from her employer, Duke Street Dental Care, where she had control of accounts and banking.
In a unanimous decision, the jurors found her guilty of false accounting and theft by a person in a special relationship between December 2011 and November 2012.
An alternate charge of stealing from Duke Street Dental did not need to be considered.
An 11-month investigation uncovered numerous transactions where she allegedly stole $25,222.50 from the business. But during the trial, the amount was amended to $9802.
The jury delivered their verdict at 2.30pm on Monday. Unbeknown to them, Higgins had at an earlier appearance pleaded guilty to one charge of theft of medicines worth less than $500.
Earlier on Monday, Judge Denise Clark urged the jurors to be firm in whatever decision they came to, as if they were “involved in a separate trial on each charge”.
“You will have seen how painstaking it is to go through just one transaction,” she said, asking the jury to note the theft charge was a representative charge covering a long period.
“You must be satisfied that during the dates alleged, the offence happened at least once.”
Clark said they must also give consideration to defence lawyer Mike Talbot’s argument that there was no direct evidence connecting Higgins to the missing money.
Clark said while Higgins was guilty of being sloppy, that did not necessarily make her a thief and that “there was shoddy record-keeping attributable to Ms Higgins’ alcohol problems at the time”.
Higgins was remanded on bail to reappear on October 8 for sentencing on all three charges.
Earlier in the trial, Crown prosecutor Truc Tran told the jury Higgins had been systemic in her offending.
“It is theft in the workplace by a receptionist. To cover her tracks she covered up entries in the accounting system.”
Practice director and dentist Barbara Cater employed Higgins around early 2011.
It was about the middle of the following year that Cater began to be concerned about how poorly her business was doing financially.
“It was at the time of the global financial crisis,” she told the court. “I just assumed my patients were opting for less expensive treatment or putting off their check-ups.”
Her staff had been asking for pay rises and there was no spare money in the business’ coffers, she said.
“Every month we were spending more money than we were making … It was happening all over the country. I just assumed it was happening at my business too.”
Cater said the situation was discussed at staff meetings, where she had to apologise to her staff for being unable to afford pay rises.
At no time did she think her staff could be stealing from her.
“It never entered my head. We were a close-knit team … I never thought to suspect anybody, ever.”
It was only after accepting the offer of a “mini audit” from an accountant that she became aware of some glaring discrepancies in the business’ accounts.
Patient treatments that in the business’ accounting system had been coded as eftpos payments and the amount of money going into the bank as eftpos payments did not correlate – at least one month to the tune of several thousand dollars.
Prior to determining that money had gone missing, Cater terminated Higgins’ employment, as she was suffering from alcohol-related issues that had begun to mar her performance.
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