A Secret Millionaire star was forced to lay off six staff and sell his company after a mother-of-two stole £35,000 from him to fund her love for designer clothes.
Aria Taheri was ‘plagued by a sickening feeling to the pit of his stomach’ after discovering accounts assistant Sarah Cunningham had been taking company cash – just 14 days after she started working for him.
Over a period of only four weeks Cunningham, 41, secretly carried out online transfers of between £3,000 and £5,500 at a time to a bank account she set up. A total of £8,200 was transferred in one day.
Mr Taheri – who donated £20,000 to a refugees charity when he appeared in the Channel 4 show in 2011 – told the court his Manchester-based gaming firm Velo Systems Ltd entered its ‘darkest chapter’ as a result of the thefts which caused severe cashflow problems.
The 56-year-old injected £50,000 of his own money in a bid to prop up the firm but later sold it on the cheap because he was so badly affected by Cunningham’s betrayal, he was ‘ill with worry.’ The total amount stolen was £35,810.10.
Aria Taheri, 56, was ‘plagued by a sickening feeling to the pit of his stomach’ after discovering accounts assistant Sarah Cunningham had been taking company cash
Over a period of only four weeks Cunningham, 41, secretly carried out online transfers of between £3,000 and £5,500 at a time to a bank account she set up
At Manchester Crown Court, Mr Taheri – who came to England from Iran when he was 17 – condemned single mother-of-two Cunningham as ‘callous, malicious and deceitful’ as she walked free after admitting theft.
Cunningham had initially claimed she was ‘pressured’ into stealing from the firm due to personal debts – but police seized thousands of pounds worth of brand new clothing and household luxuries during a raid on her home in Clayton, Manchester.
Officers also discovered she had a previous conviction for stealing from another employer.
Mr Taheri told the court: ‘Sarah Cunningham callously stole money from my company without any regard for the lives of those she would affect.
‘The repercussions have been nothing short of devastating – not only undermining the trust of myself and the management team but also wreaking havoc on the lives of numerous employees.
‘In the aftermath I was plagued by a sickening feeling in the pit of my stomach, a lingering unease that persisted for an extended period.
‘The company was forced to make the heart wrenching decision to terminate the employment of up to six staff members – individuals who had demonstrated exceptional skills and dedication – simply because our financial resources were depleted.
‘This has surely wreaked havoc on their lives including those burdened with mortgages to pay. In the wake of this malicious act, the company was plunged into its darkest chapters.
‘Our employees worked tirelessly and juggled multiple roles simultaneously, striving to sustain the business and ensure their colleagues received their deserved compensation.
‘This placed an unwarranted strain on the remaining members of our team who valiantly fought to keep our operation afloat. The weeks that ensued were filled with sleepless nights and a need for therapy to address the emotional turmoil that consumed me.
‘As I agonised over weighty decisions arising from these deceitful acts, the quandary over whether to keep the business running or to abandon it completely, loomed over me constantly.
‘Eventually I resorted to injecting £50,000 of personal funds into the company to try and retain as many employees as possible in the hope that one day the business would recover.
Cunningham had initially claimed she was ‘pressured’ into stealing from the firm due to personal debts – but police seized thousands of pounds worth of brand new clothing
‘But regrettably I was forced to sell my business at a discounted price and this was in part driven by profound impact these thefts have had on me. You need to watch your back all the time and create new processes to ensure something like doesn’t happen again and there were so many here I thought it was time to sell.
‘This harrowing experience has left deep scars not only for myself but all those in the company who were privy to this stressful revelation.
‘I fervently implore the Government to speed up the creation of appropriate legislation to curb and minimise such crimes. They are a scourge which continue to inflict damage on small and mid-size business and leave a trail of devastation in their wake.’
The court heard the thefts took place after Cunningham was taken on by Mr Taheri as a trainee in April 2019.
Robin Kitching, prosecuting, said: ‘She was employed in a position of trust and responsibility and her duties included carrying out financial reconciliations, dealing with refunds to customers and was granted access to company’s banking system.
‘But she set up her own bank account which mirrored the name of a company doing business with Velo and initiated nine separate bank transfers from the company to this account between April and May of that year.’
The thefts were discovered when the company account noticed ‘unusually high’ sums of money being paid out and noted all were transactions carried out by Cunningham.
Mr Kitching added: ‘The accountant asked Miss Cunningham if this was a mistake and she said she would look into it.
‘But five minutes later a call was made to the company stating the defendant’s mother had been rushed into hospital after suffering a stroke and as a result the defendant left work. That was clearly something she had organised in order to escape the consequences of her own actions.
‘Inquires revealed she had transferred the money from the bogus account into accounts in the name of the defendant’s father, mother and sister.
Police searched her home and recovered a large amount of brand new clothing and electrical items plus receipts for further purchases totalling very significant sums.’
Cunningham made no comment in police interview. She had a previous conviction for deception in 2006 and in 2008 was jailed for eight weeks for stealing from a former employer.
In mitigation, defence counsel Brendan O’Leary said: ‘Miss Cunningham has undergone a traumatic and upsetting time due to her cancer treatment and there is genuine remorse in this case.
‘She asks to me say the courts will never see her again not least because she realises the potential impact on their lives of her children. She had negative influences around her in Manchester but has since moved away to start afresh.’
Cunningham made no comment in police interview. She had a previous conviction for deception in 2006 and in 2008 was jailed for eight weeks for stealing from a former employer
Cunningham, who now lives in Chesterfield with her children aged 14 and five, faced up to six years in jail under sentencing guidelines but was sentenced to 22 months suspended for two years after Judge Elizabeth Nicholls said an immediate prison term would be ‘disproportionate’ and could ‘punish’ her children.
She told Cunningham: ‘It’s important to remember just how detrimental and how dramatic your conduct was. Mr Taheri was ill with worry as a consequence of what you did and he was forced to lay off staff and sell his business at a loss.
‘It had a profound impact not only on him but also on other people who were working for him. You were motivated in part by greed – it was easy to take this money and in doing so, you considered only yourself.
‘You gave no thought about the impact your behaviour had on others – your fellow employees.’
Cunningham was also ordered to wear an electronic tag for three months as part of a 7.30pm-5.30am curfew and complete 15 rehabilitation activity days. She will face a Proceeds of Crime hearing next year.