Agent’s money troubles led to ‘fraud’, court told
DARWIN real estate agent Chris Deutrom was being groomed for a job high up in the Elders real estate empire when he allegedly perpetrated a series of "straight-forward" frauds against the firm, the Supreme Court has heard.
When the first of Mr Deutrom's alleged $230,000 of offending came to light, he sent an email to his boss saying he felt "like an absolute 'f--k wit'" and was "prepared to suffer the full consequences", the court heard.
Mr Deutrom on Monday pleaded not guilty to eight counts of obtaining benefit by deception, offences which Crown Prosecutor David Morters SC told the court took place in 2015 and 2016.
"It's fairly straight-forward allegations of fraud if you look at it in these terms," Mr Morters said.
The allegations deal with a series of advertising rebates Mr Deutrom had directed into bank accounts he controlled, rather than those controlled by Elders, the court heard.
The rebates were regularly paid by realestate.com.au and the NT News to agencies which met advertising targets.
Mr Morters said suspicions were first flagged by a low-level staffer, Matthew Pullman, after Mr Deutrom allegedly told Mr Pullman that realestate.com.au was no longer paying rebates.
"That raised some suspicions with him," Mr Morters said.
"He made some inquiries with head office."
The court heard that within days, Elders was investigating Mr Deutrom over a $14,410 payment it discovered had been directed into the bank account of Deutrom Pty Ltd, a company in which Mr Deutrom was the sole director and shareholder.
Mr Morters said: "This was all about diverting money from his employer to his own accounts for his own personal gain."
The internal probe uncovered eight rebate payments which were paid to Mr Deutrom personally or his company, the court heard.
Mr Morters said Mr Deutrom ultimately paid back the $14,410, and "subsequently paid back $90,000", but the remainder of the approximately $230,000 allegedly defrauded had remained outstanding.
Mr Morters said the prosecution would rely on those repayments as an acceptance by Mr Deutrom that he had taken the money improperly.
Mr Deutrom's barrister, Jon Tippett QC, did not deliver an opening address to the jury.
In an email to his boss, Greg Dunne, in October 2016, tendered in court on Monday, Mr Deutrom said he redirected the money so he could pay for a staff trip overseas.
"I remember the day we met at the hotel for my interview and you said to me that we will get on fine as long as I don't lie to you or steal from you," Mr Deutrom wrote.
"I have betrayed this trust and feel like an absolute 'f--k wit' and am prepared to suffer the full consequences."
Mr Deutrom said the trip meant a lot to the real estate agents and was afraid if the money was paid to Elders it might get "chewed up and we would not be able to go away again".
"I have lied to (Elders operations manager) Tim (Walker) and to you and feel sick to the stomach and whilst this is not an excuse, I thought it was going to be good for the team," Mr Deutrom wrote.
"You have been like a father figure to me over the past five years and I am most disappointed that I have let you down."
Mr Dunne told the court on Monday he had previously thought staff trips to Singapore and Kuala Lumpur in 2013 and 2014 were paid for by Elders staff.
He said it wasn't until the full scale of the alleged misuse of money became apparent that the company made moves to sack Mr Deutrom.
"I understood the reasoning why he thought it was right to take the ($14,410)," he told the court.
Mr Dunne said until Mr Deutrom's alleged offending came to light there were plans for him to "continue to progress to further senior levels" in the real estate company.
He said he was driving between country towns on a work trip in New South Wales when Mr Walker - who he had tasked with investigating whether there were any more irregularities relating to Mr Deutrom - rang to tell him there was "a significant amount of money" missing beyond the first $14,410 detected.
"Tim said we have got a large issue, there appears to be a significant amount of money that's been directed elsewhere," Mr Dunne said.
He said Mr Deutrom, in a phone call later that day, "was pretty upset and concerned for his future" with the company.
"He advised me that he'd got into some serious financial trouble and that he had taken a large amount of money and was really sorry, that he wanted to tell me all along and the amount was somewhere in excess of $150,000 or $160,000," Mr Dunne said.
Mr Deutrom's contract, which was tendered in court, showed his salary package was worth $220,000 including superannuation.
Mr Deutrom was also entitled to a slice of the profits the Elders Darwin, Leanyer, Palmerston and Virginia offices made.
Mr Dunne later flew to Darwin to meet with Mr Deutrom face-to-face.
"I was thinking I would probably terminate Chris's employment," Mr Dunne said.
He said the company's senior human resources manager had drafted three letters, a termination letter, a warning letter and a final warning letter.
Mr Dunne said that after a brief meeting with Mr Deutrom at the Vibe Hotel at the Waterfront, he rang the chief executive of Elders, who made the recommendation to terminate Mr Deutrom's employment.
The trial, before Justice Jenny Blokland and a jury, is continuing.