Gavin Bainbridge says he and his wife Karen did not cook up a plan to scam the University of Otago. Photo / Rob Kidd
When a judge sentenced a Dunedin couple to home detention earlier this month, he questioned where the money they had stolen from the University of Otago had gone. Gavin Bainbridge tells Rob Kidd where the cash went and why they pleaded guilty.
A former senior manager who defrauded the University of Otago of more than $220,000 says he is not the “Attila the Hun” figure ex-colleagues claimed.
Gavin Marcus Bainbridge, 50, and his 47-year-old wife Karen were each sentenced to 10 months’ home detention this month in the Dunedin District Court for causing loss by deception.
While Mr Bainbridge — a church-going Christian and award-winning Scout leader — said it was “a miracle” they avoided imprisonment, he told the Otago Daily Times the possibility was still floating.
The family had been evicted from their rental property, an elevated spot with sweeping views over St Clair.
They recently found new accommodation outside Dunedin, but if it is not approved by Probation there would be no choice but to serve their sentences in jail.
“I’m not scared about going to prison. I’m more worried about where my sons go,” Mr Bainbridge said.
After eight years working and living in Australia, the role of head of information systems at the university had been too good to turn down.
Mr Bainbridge said it was, ironically, the prospect of his children’s tertiary education that provided the biggest drawcard.
The 2017 homecoming soon became a nightmare.
At sentencing, the court heard Mrs Bainbridge set up a company called Studio-Us in her maiden name, Morton, in October 2018.
Three months later, Mr Bainbridge established the firm as a new creditor and supplier to the university.
Over the next six months, invoices were filed with the university crediting department and $227,700 was paid to Studio-Us.
No work was provided by the firm, a summary of facts said.
Mr Bainbridge vehemently rejected the suggestion the venture had been a premeditated bid to defraud his workplace.
He said the University of Otago’s E-learning content was “shite” and that the only company in the country which could address that did not respond to his approaches.
The decision to establish Studio-Us was a recognition of a gap in the market and the university was the first of several prospective clients to be targeted, Mr Bainbridge said.
Contrary to what the court heard, he said some of the proposed projects had been delivered — by a sub-contractor.
Mr Bainbridge also claimed he raised the conflict of interest in writing with his boss, again a contradiction of the university’s version of events.
“They just shrugged it off.”
Mr Bainbridge accepted he pre-paid for IT work to be done, which was a departure from protocol, but he said it was something everyone did to push projects through.
The decision to plead guilty to the charge came after discussions with lawyers who warned the couple they could be jailed for up to five years if they were found guilty.
“From a risk perspective we could dispute and say there was no criminal intent but whether a jury of our peers could understand … that’s what it came down to,” Mr Bainbridge said.
“Do I stand on my principles and talk about the truth with a risk I’m going to be sent to prison for three years with my wife and leave my children with no parents, or suck it up and get home detention and hopefully this nightmare will be over in 12 months?”
He wrestled with the idea of guilt, of being a criminal.
“I’m not not guilty — we are responsible but not to the degree it came out,” he said.
University of Otago chief operating officer Stephen Willis had a different view.
A victim impact statement he read in court referred to Mr Bainbridge as “a noxious weed we have removed from our garden”.
Other staff, whose views he had collated, spoke of the defendant as a manipulative and uncompromising boss.
“He was brutal in his quick assessments of people, rating some as morons and muppets to their faces or in meetings behind their back,” one said.
Mr Bainbridge said he was not surprised by the verbal lashing he received in the dock, but he rejected many of the assertions.
“This characterisation of Attila the Hun, the ‘culture of fear’ … I can see how people might be fearful but the key driver was competence. It wasn’t trying to stand over people with a big stick and hit them over the head.”
Mr Brainbridge believed his drive might have been a shock to many of his 70-strong team who were not used to such a proactive approach.
“I was somebody who got s… done,” he said.
“If I chose to go to the university to do nothing, to sit on my arse, I could have done it … There are probably only two or three managers cut from the same cloth as me. The majority were suits, just people who talked a lot but didn’t really do anything.”
He reckoned that in his short time at the university he had saved it “easily a million”.
Judge Michael Turner, who sentenced the Bainbridges, questioned where the $227,700 had gone, aside from the $80,000 repaid.
While the shortfall was aired as something of a mystery in court, Mr Bainbridge was keen to clear it up.
“A shoe box full of money somewhere? That’s not the case,” he said.
About half had been used to pay subcontractors and tax.
The only extravagance, he told the ODT, was a family trip to the United States.
When criminal charges were laid, the couple were left unemployed and had to use the remainder of the cash for living essentials until they were eligible for a benefit, Mr Bainbridge said.
He wanted to pay back the money but all they had was tied up in Australian superannuation accounts and could not be withdrawn, the court heard.
On his 49th birthday last year, he was abruptly told to pack up his personal items and marched out of the university.
“I wasn’t expecting any criminal process. I was expecting a contract process,” Mr Bainbridge said.
A year later, he spent his 50th birthday marking his first week on home detention.
The restrictions of the sentence meant he was no longer able to attend church, but he was heartened by the response from the congregation.
People had called saying they were praying for him.
It was “humbling”, Mr Bainbridge said.
As for what the future held, he was resigned to the fact he would never work in the IT or corporate world again, despite having received supportive calls from former employers.
He would likely retrain in a trade.
“I’m going to have to reset my life,”he said.
“I’ve got enough of a head on my shoulders to do something else.”
A University of Otago spokeswoman said the university supported the sentence handed down by Judge Turner.
Mr Bainbridge’s offending had deeply affected staff, and he had betrayed the trust of the university, she said.
“The facts of the offending were stated very clearly in court and admitted by Mr Bainbridge through his guilty plea.
“The university is completely satisfied with the internal and external investigations into the matter.”
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