Accountant jailed to 15 years for fraud

22 September 2011 - 03:18
File photo of a prison cell.
Image: Muntu Vilakazi File photo of a prison cell.

A German baroness and her husband had high hopes when they came to South Africa to start a wine farm 14 years ago.

Little did they know that they would be duped by a crafty chartered accountant who managed to siphon millions from under their noses.

Baroness Ingrid von Essen, one of the directors of Capaia Wines, along with her husband Baron Alexander, suspected that Francois Austin, the company's general manager, had been up to no good.

She launched a full-scale audit of her company. It found that Austin, a divorcé from Brackenfell in Cape Town, had misappropriated close to R17-million of their money.

Yesterday, after entering into a plea and sentence agreement with the state, the burly and calm- looking Austin pleaded guilty to 132 counts of fraud in the Bellville Commercial Crimes Court.

In terms of the agreement, Magistrate Amrith Chabilall sentenced him to 15 years' "direct imprisonment", of which seven years is suspended for five years. Chabilall also ordered that Austin pay R300000 to the state attorney on or before October 14.

According to the order: "The state attorney is directed to pay the money referred to, to the victim, Baroness Ingrid von Essen."

While the seemingly media-shy baroness refused to comment, Austin's lawyer, Ed Booth, said that "in some ways" his client is relieved that it is all over.

"He actually wanted the matter to be finalised sooner," Booth said soon after Austin was led to the holding cells.

Austin will be spending his 40th birthday, on Sunday, behind bars.

He has since been sequestrated, and the baroness has managed to recover more than R3-million from his estate.

Austin has also terminated his registration with the South African Institute of Chartered Accountants.

The wine farm is situated outside Durbanville, near Cape Town .

The estate produces a variety of wines including cabernet sauvignon and merlot.