Woman gets four years for theft

51 incidents of theft over six years

The Law Courts Building in downtown George Town. - File photo.
The Law Courts Building in downtown George Town. – File photo.

An employee of Progressive Distributors Ltd. was sentenced on Wednesday to four years in prison for theft of $448,447 from the company.

Coleen Holness, 42, manager of accounts receivable, pleaded guilty last August to stealing the money in 51 incidents between July 3, 2008 and Sept. 4, 2014.

She had been on bail until recently so that a social inquiry report could be prepared.

Magistrate Valdis Foldats pointed out that her offending was a breach of trust that warranted immediate imprisonment. It was necessary, he said, to discourage like-minded individuals who might be inclined to commit similar offenses. The sentence also had to mark publicly the seriousness of this type of behavior.

The amount of money stolen is a significant factor for the court to consider, he noted.

Two cases from the U.K. have long been used in Cayman’s courts as sentencing guidelines. The magistrate identified two problems with relying on the U.K. cases: one involved converting CI dollars to British pounds for comparison; the other concerned the value of money when inflation is taken into account, because the British cases were from 1985 and 1998.

In Holness’s case, the magistrate noted, the thefts were over a period of six years.
He cited the Cayman Islands Court of Appeal which said that what mattered was “the value of what has been stolen in real, everyday terms.”

Magistrate Foldats said the amount Holness stole was so large that a person paid Cayman’s minimum wage of $6 per hour would need more than 30 years to earn that amount. She stole an average of about $72,000 per year, he said.

“It is hoped that we will soon have detailed, local guidelines for offenses of theft as we now do for burglary and robbery offenses. Specific guidelines would be up-to-date, expressed in Cayman dollars and would take into account our own local dynamics and economic statistics.

“Moreover, such local guidelines would also make an adjustment for the different maximum penalty that exists between the two jurisdictions: in the U.K., the maximum penalty for theft is seven years imprisonment while in Cayman it is 10 years imprisonment,” the magistrate said.

For the amount stolen by Holness, his starting point was a sentence of five years. Among the mitigating and aggravating factors he took into account were:

Quality and degree of trust: Holness was meant to deposit funds received and post transactions to the appropriate ledgers. She was not at the heart of the company’s financial structure, but she was not a low-level employee with little responsibility. The magistrate found she had enjoyed a relatively high degree of trust.

Period over which thefts occurred: Holness knew her employer’s accounting system and exploited its weaknesses, playing an elaborate “shell game,” over six years and targeting certain customer accounts to avoid exposure, the magistrate said.

Use to which money was put: Holness admitted to the probation officer preparing the social inquiry report that she stole the funds to finance her lifestyle – she was living beyond her means and paying for things like family vacations and frequent cruises.

No victim impact statement was received, but in making general comments about the potential impact such thefts could have on a company, the magistrate said theft on this scale could mean reduced dividends for shareholders, delay of any expansion plans, and possible bankruptcy. Once thefts are discovered, time and money are spent conducting audits to quantify losses.

Fellow employees might be deprived of wage increases or bonuses that might otherwise be available. “The victims are not a faceless corporation – these are workmates that are seen on a daily basis … Stealing from your employer also robs your colleagues,” the magistrate pointed out.

The magistrate said Holness is now a convicted thief, she had lost her reputation, her family will see her in jail and she will have difficulty finding a job in the future. “These are simply the natural consequences of the crime the defendant committed and are not significant mitigating factors,” the magistrate said. Her genuine remorse was a mitigating factor.

Holness had no money to pay compensation to the victim. This was not an aggravating factor – it was the absence of a mitigating factor, the magistrate said.

The aggravating factors caused him to raise the sentence from five years to six. Giving a full one-third discount for the guilty plea because Holness had saved the court the time, energy and expense of a trial, the magistrate sentenced her to four years.