Real estate agents fined $10k after failure to act on $1.2m vanished client funds

Two Auckland Harcourts real estate agents found guilty of misconduct this month have been fined a combined $10,000 for their failure to tell a state authority about $1.2 million vanishing client funds.

Joe Voordouw has been fined $6000 and Garry Mason $4000 by the Real Estate Agents Disciplinary Tribunal. Both were censured but the tribunal said it did not consider an order for further education was needed for the men and they noted their honest reputations and long industry careers.

The misconduct finding alone sent “a strong message to the industry”, the tribunal said.

The agents worked at the now-failed Preet franchised operations owned and headed by Gurpreet Grewal who Harcourts Group has sued in the High Court at Auckland for $1.27m. The outcome of that case is pending.

The Harcourts Preet businesses had 10 branches in south and east Auckland. Voordouw was branch manager of Harcourts Preet & Co in Ellerslie and Mason was chief operations officer, based in Manukau, the tribunal said.

Last year, Voordouw signed a trust account statutory declaration about the balance of the agency’s funds. He was told $1m had been transferred from the agency’s trust account and into another account and purchase deposits had been put in the wrong bank account, it said. A further $200,000 was also discovered to be missing from the trust account.

Voordouw and Mason met Grewal to raise issues about the missing money and Voordouw made notes about a breach of the Real Estate Agents Act 2008 and “potentially fraud”.

Yet the tribunal said he did not notify the Real Estate Authority, as he was bound to do under law.

Instead, he emailed the auditor to “have a look at the trust account” which did not indicated the scale of the issue or any urgency, the tribunal said. It found a number of trigger points after the initial discovery of a missing $1m from the trust account.

The tribunal found the men’s conduct in failing to report issues “constituted seriously incompetent and/or seriously negligent real estate agency work” under the law. They relied on the auditor to take steps but that did not absolve them from their obligations. They should have gone to greater lengths to make the auditor aware of the seriousness of the issues and the need for urgent investigation and to query the auditor about his reference to $1m being used to finance the purchase of branches, the tribunal found.

Despite the missing money, they left the investigations up to Grewal and relied on him to seek legal advice and advise the franchisor when the proper course of action would be to notify the auditor then to report to the authority, the tribunal said.

Despite the trigger points, they did not make any report to the authority. That failure could not be justified on the basis they were waiting for the auditor, it said.

Simon Waalkens, the Meredith Connell lawyer who acted for the authority’s complaints assessment committee which brought the action said the men’s failure to report the issues was a serious breach of acceptable standards.

Protecting the agency’s clients should have been foremost in their minds, he said. Voordouw’s lawyer said the offending should not be characterised as being towards the upper range of serious negligence misconduct.

Voordouw’s lawyer told the tribunal his client had admitted the charge of misconduct, had acted honestly and in good faith and believed he was acting diligently, did not get any personal gain from the conduct, had a long and unblemished career in the industry and was currently employed in the industry.

Waalkens asked that Mason be fined up to $8000 but Mason’s lawyer said steps were taken to investigate the missing money, Mason had taken the matter seriously and he was only peripherally involved, not responsible for the trust account. He did not get any personal benefit from the breach, and had clearly paid for his mistake and its consequences.

The tribunal cited a Bayleys Real Estate case where a salesperson had forged or falsified a rental appraisal and presented that to prospective buyers.

It decided the men should have acted promptly but it cited mitigating factors, including the men’s long industry career and character references. Both had earned excellent reputations for honesty, integrity and diligence, the tribunal found and they had both contributed significantly to the industry.

They were ordered to pay the fines within 20 working days.

Auckland bus driver denies careless driving which left two dead

A 72-year-old bus driver has denied careless driving causing the death of two Aucklanders earlier this year.

Ngatokoitu Tapora entered not-guilty pleas today in the Manukau District Court.

Taylor Charles King, 23, and Jeremy Tokotai KauKasi, 34, were struck by a bus on Puhinui Rd on April 14.

The two mates worked together at Altus Enterprises, a social enterprise that employs nearly 200 people with disabilities.Both men died at the scene.

Police said at the time the passengers on board the bus were not injured.

Tapora faces two charges of driving carelessly, causing death.

The maximum penalty for each charge is three months’ imprisonment and a fine of $4500.

She is also charged with careless driving on Neilson Rd, Onehunga, on March 28, the maximum penalty for which is a fine of $3000.

Tapora appeared briefly before Judge Josephine Bouchier this morning.

The public gallery was full of bereaved supporters, also sitting outside the courtroom and waiting to hear what happened.

As Tapora, who is represented by defence lawyer Karl Trotter, left the dock a woman said: “You took my son.”

Outside the courtroom she began sobbing.

Tapora left the courthouse flanked by supporters.

She is due to appear in court again next year.

NZ Herald

Donald Trump could use Democrat House win to his advantage, says Tony Blair

A cunning Donald Trump could “back the Democrats into a corner” by using their midterm elections win to his own advantage, former British prime minister Tony Blair warns.

The former British Labour leader took centre stage at the Web Summit in Portugal’s capital Lisbon last night where the implications of the elections dominated his agenda.

Blair — who often spoke of the “special relationship” between the US and UK during his prime ministership — told the Lisbon audience overnight the US President was “divisive”.

Blair drew laughter from the crowd when he said it was almost “impossible” to predict what he was going to do next. But the experienced political operator offered a warning to the Democrats.

“I think sometimes he will try and work with the Democrats and trap them into an argument if they are not going to work with him and the other thing he could do — I have seen this with other American presidents — is if you lose the House at the midterms, and it can block your legislation, the advantage is that you can play off that.”

If the Democrats blocked too much legislation, Trump could simply turn to the electorate and accuse them of being wreckers.

“You could say to the constituents ‘I want to do all of these things but they won’t work with me.’ So I think that poses a challenge for the Democrats.”

The danger for them was a politics-weary public thinking they were just “going after Trump”.

They would have to pursue his policies and be willing to engage with him if he made them “a reasonable offer”.

If not, they would be backed into a corner.

“This is where the politics is going to get quite tricky. If you think back to 2016 election and the first months of the Trump presidency, it seemed like it all might fall over … and it hasn’t collapsed. It will require smart politics.”

Blair said the Democrats would have to think “very carefully” about their 2020 strategies, policies — and their candidate.

“What this shows is they can’t take it for granted.”

The three-time general election winner said the results of yesterday’s midterms were going to prove a problem for Trump.

“Because a change in Congress means they are going to have the ability to investigate, to inquire, to come after him, and after his people.”

But the results suggested trouble lay ahead for the Democrats — both due to their natural inclination to block the passage of legislation in the House of Representatives and because of the relatively strong Republican performance.

“I think if I was the Democrats this morning I would be doing some head-scratching … if you look at previous presidents’ midterms, like Bill Clinton in 1994 and Barack Obama in 2010 … it’s not actually that bad a result for Donald Trump.”

Blair thought voters were “settling into” the Trump presidency and appeared to be able to separate the “what you could call ‘stuff’ around the presidency and Donald Trump the tweeter” and the US Government’s policies.

All that made it so much harder to be able to judge what was going to happen next.

“I think when it comes to 2020, the race is up in the air. And when you think about even a year ago, lots of people would have thought surely this is a one-term president.”

Both sides could therefore take some comfort in the results.

Asked whether the vote could be seen as referendum on Trump, he said it was hard to escape that view when the President dominated US politics to such an extent.

He was loved and loathed in equal measure, so whether Trump could secure a second term rested with the independents in the middle — and how many of them could be moved back to the Democrats.

“Where might they move? And from those results last night, they are split. It’s not really clear and if you look at them … and what it means for 2020, it’s far from certain.”

One thing was certain though — the surge of populism from the right was far from over.

“Donald Trump is such a divisive figure that it is hard to have a rational debate about the policies … the divisiveness I’m America is profound and what last night’s result shows is it’s not resolved for sure one way or the other.”

NZ Herald