A West Midland law firm defrauded by an employee of £1.6 million to fund a lavish lifestyle has welcomed her five-year jail sentence and said it had brought closure to an 18-month ordeal.
Cashier Louise Martini, 36, who had worked for Williamson & Soden since she was 16, bought Chanel and Cartier jewellery, shares in a racehorse and the lease of a pub in the village which supposedly inspired Ambridge in The Archers, with the money she stole from the firm.
She was sentenced at Gloucester Crown Court to five years’ imprisonment after pleading guilty to theft and money laundering charges.
Ian Williamson, senior partner at the firm, which was established in Shirley in 1979 and has an office in Birmingham, said: “I welcome the sentence as the final chapter, bringing closure to a story that for us began with the partners’ discovery of Ms 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.”
Mr Williamson said the firm of eight partners and 70 staff in total was shocked to discover they had been lied to by a longstanding member of their team.
The partners spotted irregularities during a weekend review and suspended Martini the following day.
He said: “As a male, I wouldn’t particularly have noticed the difference between one pair of shoes and another, she was always smartly dressed and as far as we know she was married to a successful businessman, how far do you go when questioning personal circumstances?
“We were unaware of much of her lifestyle outside the office.”
Martini, from Solihull, lived a secret double life while systematically raiding the accounts Williamson & Soden for seven years.
She pretended to husband Richard, 40, that she was a high-flying accountant taking home up to £70,000 a year.
But in truth she was a cashier, earning around £24,000 a year.
She splashed out £10,000 on Cartier jewellery, racked up an £8,325 bill at Selfridges and went on spending sprees at Harvey Nichols, Jimmy Choo and Harrods.
She stayed at the exclusive Danieli Hotel in Venice, spent £130,000 on holidays to Las Vegas, Bologna and Lake Como and bought a fleet of cars including a Range Rover and an Audi A5 Coupe. She also owned a racehorse which cost £1,800 a month and used the law firm’s cheques to pay credit card bills.
Mr Williamson said the firm had pulled together to overcome the difficult period. He said: “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 hardworking 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 reconciliations 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.
“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.”
Martini had pleaded guilty to stealing £1,634,582 from Williamson and Soden between 2002 and 2009 and another charge of money laundering.
She and her husband are now divorced.
An investigation under the Proceeds of Crime Act is ongoing.