Behind the simple concept of Bill Express terminals in newsagents stood a complex web of interests.
Photo: Gabriele Charotte
The Australian Securities and Investment Commission is often criticised for being a toothless tiger when it comes to going after white collar criminals, but the corporate watchdog had a small win when the former chief financial officer of Bill Express, which collapsed at the start of the recession, was sent to jail.
It’s almost five years since the collapse of Bill Express but it still stands out as one of the worst disasters of the global financial crisis.
The company was based on the relatively simple idea of setting up a network of special payment terminals in newsagents and supermarkets then selling payment solutions to hundreds of companies. At its peak, there were 14,000 terminals across Australia.
But behind the idea was a web of companies that traded in complexity and, as we’ve seen in a series of court cases, downright fraud. The business had debts of more than $330 million when it finally went under in May 2008.
On Wednesday it was the turn of Peter Couper, the chief financial officer of Bill Express’s parent company OnQ Group, to face the music again.
Couper pleaded guilty (although only after 11 witnesses testified against him) to two counts of falsifying the books at Bill Express, one count of providing misleading information to the company’s auditor and one count of providing false or misleading information to ASIC during an examination.
He was found to have put a sale of $5.4 million through the accounts when no such sale occurred and a $1.875 million purchase of stock when no such purchase occurred.
In July 2012, the Victorian County Court sentenced Couper to 21 months’ jail, wholly suspended, and fined him $10,000.
But on Wednesday the Victorian Court of Appeal sentenced him to 22 months in jail, to be released after 60 days, and fined him $10,000.
Sixty days in jail is hardly a lengthy sentence, but with Bill Express at least, ASIC has had a series of wins.
In November 2012, former Bill Express salesman Enzo Di Donato was sentenced to 12 months’ jail, wholly suspended, for providing false information to ASIC.
In April 2011, former Bill Express manager Ian Christiansen was banned from managing companies for five years.
And in July 2010, former stockbroker Newton Chan was sentenced to 20 months’ jail for manipulation of the Bill Express share price.
The wheels of justice may turn slowly but at least in the case of Bill Express they have turned.