Lapham took $500,000 in a fortnight - driver

At least four Lapham accomplices ran the bogus operation out of his Mt Albert home, with all of them aware the ironing franchisees were being duped, Mr Joyce says…The Serious Fraud Office is understood to have yesterday ordered Green Acres not to speak with media, as comments made public this week were impacting on the investigation./

The New Zealand Herald
January 12, 2008

Lapham took $500,000 in a fortnight - driver

Lincoln Tan and David Eames

A man who spent a year driving for alleged franchise fraudster Keith Lapham believes his former boss took almost $500,000 from new ironing franchisees in the fortnight before his disappearance.

Jason Joyce was employed by Lapham from November 2006 to deliver ironing and do other duties for his Green Acres ironing franchisees.

Mr Joyce agreed to speak with the Weekend Herald to deny allegations made by Green Acres managers and some media that courier drivers were in on Lapham's scheme.

He also wanted to make sure short-changed franchisees - many of whom he formed solid friendships with - were looked after.

At least four Lapham accomplices ran the bogus operation out of his Mt Albert home, with all of them aware the ironing franchisees were being duped, Mr Joyce says.

He estimates Lapham took money from at least 20 new franchisees - at a minimum $20,000 each - in the two weeks before December 20.

Mr Joyce says he suspected something was amiss after unpaid franchisees came to him looking for money.

"The whole time I was suspicious. I had a gut feeling right from the beginning that something wasn't right, but I was just pushed under the carpet."

However, when he took his concerns to Lapham and others, he was told the franchisees - predominantly Indian and Chinese immigrants - were "lying".

"I had my suspicions," Mr Joyce says, "but what can you do without actual proof?"

Beside, business was good. So good in fact, Mr Joyce - who was working up to 18 hours a day - had to employ other couriers to help him out with deliveries. Where most other franchise masters usually dealt with about 10 sub-franchisees, Lapham had up to 140 on his books, Mr Joyce says.

Mr Joyce often went more than a week without wages.

Manukau ironing franchisee Ketan Trevidi-Meeraket also had trouble getting money out of Lapham.

He was guaranteed a minimum $650 a week when he signed on for an ironing franchise, in May last year.

Now, barely eight months later, the ironing gear lies idle, the work has dried up, and a $21,000 bank loan must be repaid at $140 a week.

Bags began arriving which contained "practice clothing", to be ironed along with legitimate garments.

When he asked the couriers about the clothing, he was told to contact Lapham. He got more suspicious when the same clothing started arriving "over and over again".

By early November Mr Trevidi-Meeraket found Lapham making "all kinds of excuses" for not paying up - he was always having trouble with his bank, or had just changed his automatic teller machine.

Mr Joyce also remembers taking ironing to franchisees, including items labelled with false names that included Brad Pitt, Ayrton Senna and Ron and Nancy Reagan. He originally thought the phoney names were part of a training programme, not an attempt to keep franchisees working. But before long, there was far too much ironing going on.

"It was coming from everywhere. People's homes, clothes that people didn't want … as far as we knew it was to bring them [franchisees] up to scratch."

Both men were closely involved the day Lapham's scam finally collapsed.

Mr Joyce says he was told by one of Lapham's accomplices to help get rid of Green Acres paperwork from Lapham's home.

"I uhmed and ahhed. I was reluctant … [but] I did what I was told. I just chucked them [the paperwork] into the vehicle like they asked me to."

He later returned the paperwork to Green Acres boss Logan Sears, but says he is keeping the van in lieu of money owed by Lapham.

Mr Trevidi-Meeraket says he begged Green Acres managers to hold Lapham, after he spotted him sitting in Green Acres' Parnell office on December 20. His requests were ignored, he says, and within a couple of days, Lapham had fled.

Lapham's has not been seen since, but is believed to be moving between addresses in Auckland.

His whereabouts would appear to be a mystery to his former housemate Gary Mathews.

Mr Mathews told the Weekend Herald he had no idea where Lapham was. He said he considered himself as much a victim as Lapham's franchisees, and was suffering from stress.

Mr Mathews told the Herald he had legal advice not to talk, but intended to go to police.

VICTIM CLAIMS GREEN ACRES KNEW OF MISDEEDS
One of the victims of Green Acres master franchise licensee Keith Lapham's ironing franchises believes the parent company should come to the rescue.

Asha Patel said it was impossible for her to accept Green Acres' claim that it was not aware of Lapham's misdeeds earlier or not having any legal obligation to defrauded franchisees.

"I did not go to Keith, the Green Acres office referred me to him. Over the last two years, the work-related letters we received were signed by staff from the head office or Keith as Green Acres' area manager," she said. "How can they now say they do not have any legal obligation?"

The lives of 200 victims and their families have been turned upside down by Keith Lapham. They continue to live their nightmare as the hunt continues for Mr Lapham who is believed to be in hiding.

Green Acres has distanced themselves from Lapham and issued what they called a "rescue package" to honour the Lapham-issued franchises if holders met the standard qualifying criteria, such as the ability to speak English, operate a business, hold a driver's licence and purchase suitable vehicles to do their own pick up and delivery.

However, the company said it cannot guarantee their incomes.

About 80 franchisees gathered outside the company's Parnell holding placards yesterday morning rejecting the company's offer. They said it did not extend to the main reasons they had entered into contract with Lapham, which are getting a guaranteed income and be able to work without leaving the home.

Spokesperson Ketan Meerakat said of Green Acres' offer: "The rescue package does not do anything for us victims, it is more a rescue package for Green Acres."

"I thought buying the business was the perfect solution to my problems," one victim, Auckland Hospital nurse P R Bindumol, said.

"Instead it has turned out to be our worst nightmare."

Since buying the $21,000 franchise from Lapham, all she had been facing since are simply more problems; late payments and non payments from Lapham, and demands from the bank for repayment on the $14,700 loan she took.

Company says it is also a casualty but has a "moral" duty

Green Acres has maintained that it, too, is a victim of Keith Lapham.

The home maintenance giant has insisted it is not liable for refunds, as Mr Lapham was "an independent operator, licensed to sell the Green Acres system".

It did say it had a "moral" obligation to Mr Lapham's franchisees, however, and this week released its rescue package.

It agrees to honour franchises, but sets conditions, including, new franchisees must meet immigration criteria, own suitable vehicles and be available for a minimum 35 hours weekly.

The Serious Fraud Office is understood to have yesterday ordered Green Acres not to speak with media, as comments made public this week were impacting on the investigation.

But Green Acres chief executive Andrew Chisholm said yesterday Lapham had been awarded a "Master Franchise Award" after selling his 50th franchise and had attended a conference in Brisbane last year.

SFO chief Grant Liddell refused to discuss progress on the investigation.

The Weekend Herald tried repeatedly to speak with Mr Lapham, including visiting two Auckland addresses in Orakei and Mt Albert. His cellphone message directs callers to a Green Acres landline number.


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