Woman stole $70,000 from Coast business to feed gambling addiction

A LEGAL bookkeeper, who defrauded her employers of more than $70,000 to feed a gambling addiction brought on by her mental illness, will spend more than a year behind bars.

A weeping Michelle Wallace Dowzer pleaded guilty in Brisbane District Court to defrauding a Maroochydore law firm of more than $69,000, and a car hire company of about $4000, while she was employed by the businesses.

She quietly sobbed as Judge Paul Smith noted it must be "dreadful" for her 24-year-old daughter, present in the gallery, to see her mother sent to jail.

Dowzer's barrister, Michael Bonasia, said Dowzer had only told her family about her legal issues last week because she was so ashamed and embarrassed and had not wanted to worry them.

Mr Bonasia also told the court Dowzer was petrified of having to go to the watchhouse, to which Judge Smith asked she might be taken as quickly as practicable to jail, rather than having to spend the usual few days in the watchhouse.

The court was told how the now 53-year-old, who prior to the offences had no criminal history, almost did not go a day without transferring money from the trust and other accounts of the Sunshine Coast's Swan Law Services Pty Ltd, where she was employed by lawyer Lynda Swanston.

Dowzer, who had been employed in the banking industry for decades, including in managerial roles, requested a loan for living expenses from Ms Swanston shortly after commencing the job in 2010, which she was granted.

Dowzer told Ms Swanston she suffered from bipolar disorder, but did not give her any further documentation of this.

The court heard things began to unravel quickly for Dowzer, who had to be chastised on numerous occasions because of her workplace attitude, and was finally given her notice in April of 2011 by the firm. She continued to work there while her replacement was sought.

Inconsistencies with accounts emerged. When in 2011 a shortfall of $10,000 was discovered from the firm's trust account, the Queensland Law Society was notified and an accountant engaged to examine misappropriations.

It became clear Dowzer had began making fraudulent transfers of funds soon after starting the job. She engaged in falsifying documents, pocketing client's cash payments, writing fictitious cheques, directly moving money from the firm's trust account to her own and obtaining overdrafts from the bank in the firm's name, without approval.

The Crown stressed the serious impact the fraud had on Ms Swanston - who had been practising as a lawyer without issue since 1985 - and her business, not least the significant financial toll it had taken.

Dowzer was charged and released on bail, later finding employment with a car hire firm in Maroochydore. It was discovered on the business's CCTV she was letting herself onto the premises after hours and using the eftpos machine to transfer herself money, totalling nearly $4000. The court accepted she had paid most this back after it was discovered.

Dowzer's defence detailed a difficult personal history, including sexual abuse and a disintegrated marriage, which had contributed to her mental illnesses, including severe depression.

Mr Bonasia said she used gambling as a way of distracting herself and coping, and it was commonly manifested in those suffering bipolar.

Judge Smith said the fraud Dowzer had committed was "incredibly brazen" and "incredibly persistent", despite the Queensland Law Society investigating the situation. He also took into account her gambling addiction prompted by her mental health situation.

Dowzer was sentenced to prison for four years, to be suspended after serving 16 months.


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