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Bookkeeper who defrauded Island mill sees house arrest converted to jail time

Initial sentence was overturned in B.C. Court of Appeal
The Court of Appeal in Vancouver. (Black Press file photo)

A woman who defrauded an Errington mill while working as a bookkeeper will now serve two years in jail instead of house arrest.

Renee Patricia Merkel’s initial sentence was two years less one day under house arrest, handed down in April this year. It was submitted for appeal by the Crown and on Monday (Nov. 29), B.C.’s highest court deemed the decision “demonstrably unfit”.

In a court document written by Justice Gregory Fitch, and concurred with by Justice Harvey Groberman and Justice Patrice Abrioux, the Crown indicated Merkel’s April sentence did not reflect her high moral culpability and argued the sentencing judge erred in giving mitigating effect to her claim that opioid use and mental health contributed to her actions.

One judge said the April sentence was a marked departure from sentences imposed in like circumstances, as Merkel engaged in a “deliberate” pattern of deceit over a substantial period of time, all the while abusing her position of trust.

READ MORE: Errington mill closes, approximately 50 workers lose their jobs

In October last year, she pleaded guilty to one count of fraud over $5,000 for manipulating and falsifying paycheques of current, past and even inactive employees of the mill for approximately 10 months while she oversaw the mill’s payroll system.

Court heard Merkel siphoned over $70,000 into a personal account, and subsequently cost the business an additional $38,700 in overpayments based on the falsified information to sent to the Canada Pension Plan, Employment Insurance, the provincial Workers Compensation Board and a deferred profit-sharing plan.

She was ordered to pay back the accrued $109,000 in restitution to Errington Cedar Products Ltd., and $400 to each of the former employees affected by the fraud.

The decision noted the respondent’s supervisor, a daughter of one of the owners, provided a victim impact statement at the sentencing hearing. It said she hired the respondent to help out in the office. The two became friends. She lost her father to cancer in 2017, and assumed full responsibility for the duties he previously discharged. She discovered that the respondent began committing the fraud about five or six weeks after her father died. As she put it, “the forest industry is a really hard industry to be in” and that while “$100,000 might not seem like a lot of money … to a company that’s struggling, it was a lot of money.”

Her actions also caused employees to face increased taxes and even some to lose child and other tax credits as a result of the information submitted to the Canada Revenue Agency.

The appeal court justices indicated the extent of the harm inflicted on her co-workers could not be determined.

The Errington mill was the fourth employer Merkel had defrauded or stolen money from while in a position of trust.

Monday’s appealed sentence, which was unanimously endorsed by all three judges, delivered the two-year sentence in federal custody with three years probation.

Other orders against Merkel include not having authority over another person or organization’s money or property aside from her immediate family’s for the rest of her life.

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