$10m theft was opportunistic, court told

Runaway millionaire Hui "Leo" Gao has appealed his prison sentence, arguing that his culpability was lower because his offending was opportunistic and he was simply "making the most of a bank error".

Gao, 32, spent more than two years on the run with long-term girlfriend Kara Hurring after they fled New Zealand in April 2009 when $NZ10 million ($6.5 million) was mistakenly deposited into Gao's Westpac bank business overdraft, instead of the intended $NZ100,000.

He was extradited from Hong Kong in December 2011 after being arrested by border police as he tried to cross from mainland China.

The former Rotorua BP service station owner pleaded guilty in June last year to seven charges of theft totalling $NZ6.78 million that he had transferred to offshore accounts in Macau and Hong Kong.

He was sentenced to four years, seven months in prison.

Gao's lawyer, Ron Mansfield, told the NZ Court of Appeal on Monday that Gao's case was unique as he had not set out to commit fraud, but seized the opportunity when it came to him.


The sentencing judge had erred in giving Gao a similar sentence to a criminal who had set out to defraud, he said.

Mr Mansfield received a torrid time from the Court of Appeal judges when he said the crime had left Gao with "no assets and no livelihood".

"Well has it?" Justice Randerson asked.

"For all we know the funds are available to him somewhere."

Westpac recovered $NZ2.9 million when Gao's accounts were frozen, but $NZ3.7 million remains outstanding.

Justice Lang said that without a refund or an explanation as to how the money was spent the inference available was that he had the money "salted away" somewhere.

"$3.7 million is a lot of money to spend in a very short amount of time."

Mr Mansfield said much of the money was transferred to casino accounts, but he did not have instructions as to how the money was spent.

Crown lawyer Kate Bicknell said there was persistent, culpable dishonesty in the multiple transfers required to move the millions offshore.

Justices Lang, Hansen and Randerson reserved their decision.