Senior Unitec manager Kimberley Gupwell steals more than $100,000 of taxpayer money for fashion, beauty products and Uber Eats

A former senior manager at the Unitec Institute of Technology spent more than $100,000 of taxpayer money on fashion, beauty products, holidays, entertainment, and Uber Eats.

The Herald can today reveal Kimberley Gupwell’s nearly three years of deception at the Auckland tertiary school, which came at a time when it was under significant financial pressure and received a Government bailout in the form of a $50 million loan.

The offending included more than 1400 fraudulent transactions to fund Gupwell’s opulent lifestyle.

She was yesterday convicted and sentenced to 10 months’ home detention on three representative charges of dishonestly using a document, altering a document with intent to deceive, and accessing a computer system for a dishonest purpose.

It came more than four years after the 37-year-old began working at Unitec in May 2016 as its head of international market development.

After she was hired, Gupwell was given a purchasing card from the institution with a daily transaction limit of $5000 and monthly credit limit of $10,000. The money was there to be used for international agent commissions, online resources and other marketing related costs such as off-campus meetings with overseas agencies.

However, a little more than two months into her new job, Gupwell began splurging thousands of dollars on herself and personal items.

Court documents released to the Herald revealed Gupwell’s spending habits, which included $26,700 on hair and beauty, $9321 for clothes and shoes, $1713 on holiday accommodation, and a whopping $18,294 on groceries and Uber Eats.

She also spent $6427 on entertainment, $2315 for home renovations, $14,611 on vehicle expenses and fuel, and $1600 on lawyer fees.

After each purchase, Gupwell then went about covering it up.

Unitec employees with a purchasing card were required to reconcile their spending using a financial management program with details of the purchase and a corresponding receipt.

However, some 733 times, Gupwell logged onto the program and changed the merchant name provided by the bank, before entering a false reason for her purchase.

Often Gupwell simply offered no receipt for her expenses but on at least 15 occasions she created a falsified receipt and provided it as proof of a legitimate purchase.

Ultimately Unitec’s financial management team discovered anomalies in Gupwell’s spending. After weeks of investigating they found between July 16, 2016, and March 29, 2019, she used the card for her own personal use 1461 times – totalling $110,188.

Criminal charges were then laid in December last year by police.

Unitec’s executive director of finance Alison Sarginson and executive director of people and infrastructure Mary Johnston were both in the Auckland District Court for yesterday’s sentencing.

Sarginson said Gupwell’s role, which included international travel, was to develop international student partnerships and also maintain vital relationships with government agencies such as the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

Gupwell was relied on for leadership guidance for her team, Sarginson said.

“High trust was placed in Kimberley to represent our business interests.”

Sarginson said Gupwell lacked a moral compass and disregarded all of Unitec’s values.

Her fraud “shocked, distressed and deeply disappointed” staff who had until then held Gupwell in high regard.

Sarginson added her concern about the potential damage to Unitec’s international reputation from Gupwell’s crimes in a market severely disrupted by Covid-19.

Johnston also said she was shocked at Gupwell’s duplicity, which came at a time Unitec was under enormous financial stress.

In July 2018, Education Minister Chris Hipkins announced he was dissolving the Unitec council and appointing a commissioner to address the institute’s difficulties and potential multi-million shortfall.

A month later Hipkins announced a $50m loan for Unitec.

Johnston said Gupwell had deceived those who trusted her and enjoyed lavish lunches and online shopping “all on the taxpayer dollar”.

Important business trips also had to be cancelled due to cost cuts due to Gupwell’s “web of lies”, Johnston said.

Gupwell, meanwhile, expressed deep regret for her offending and told police it was the biggest mistake of her life.

Her lawyer, Joshua Grainger, said Gupwell’s “lies grew so big and the lies were exposed” as a lifestyle she couldn’t afford caught up with her.

Grainger said his client felt a sense of obligation to pay the money back, while Gupwell’s finances were now being handled by her father.

Judge Eddie Paul ordered Gupwell to pay $40,000 of reparations to Unitec, which included a $1000 payment yesterday.

He described Gupwell’s offending as repetitive and “clearly a significant breach of trust”.

“The duration of the offending speaks for itself,” he said. “It’s not an aberration, you persisted with it over years.”

Spending some of the money on Uber Eats was a “kick in the guts” to Unitec, Judge Paul said.

“Cost-cutting measures have been undertaken by them, simply for them to survive, and your actions really undermined all of that,” he told Gupwell.

Judge Paul also did not take into account suspicions from Unitec that Gupwell may have defrauded others elsewhere, based on her almost immediate willingness to offend and a calculated scheme.

He instead treated Gupwell as a first-time offender and gave her discounts for her guilty pleas and previous good character.

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