The Secret Millionaire star was forced to lay off six employees and sell his business after the mother-of-two stole £35,000 from him to fund her love of designer clothes.
Aria Taheri was left with a “sickening feeling in the pit of her stomach” when she discovered accounting assistant Sarah Cunningham was accepting company money – just 14 days after she started working for him.
Over the course of just four weeks, Cunningham, 41, secretly made online transfers of between £3,000 and £5,500 at a time to a bank account she had set up. A total of £8,200 was donated in one day.
Taheri – who donated £20,000 to a refugee charity when he appeared on the Channel 4 program in 2011 – told the court that his Manchester-based gaming company Velo Systems Ltd had entered its “darkest chapter” in result of theft which caused serious cash flow problems.
The 56-year-old put up £50,000 of his own money to support the company, but later sold it cheaply because he was so affected by Cunningham’s betrayal that he was “sick with worry”. The total amount stolen was £35,810.10.
Aria Taheri, 56, was “plagued by a nauseous feeling in the pit of her stomach” after discovering that accounting assistant Sarah Cunningham was taking company money
Over the course of just four weeks, Cunningham, 41, secretly made online transfers of between £3,000 and £5,500 at a time to a bank account she had set up
Outside Manchester Crown Court, Taheri, who came to England from Iran aged 17, condemned Cunningham, a single mother of two, as “callous, malicious and deceitful” as she was released after pleading guilty to the theft.
Cunningham initially claimed she was “forced” to rob the company due to personal debts, but police seized thousands of pounds worth of brand new clothing and luxury household items when they raided her home in Clayton, Manchester.
The officers also discovered that she had a previous conviction for stealing from another employer.
Mr Taheri told the court: “Sarah Cunningham callously stole money from my company with no regard for the lives of those she affected.
“The repercussions were simply devastating – not only did they undermine my confidence and that of the management team, but also wreaked havoc on the lives of many employees.
“Following this, I was plagued by a nauseous feeling in the lower abdomen and persistent anxiety that lasted for a long time.
“The company was forced to make the painful decision to terminate the employment of up to six employees – people who had demonstrated exceptional skill and commitment – simply because our financial resources were exhausted.
“It has certainly wreaked havoc on their lives, including those with mortgages to pay. In the wake of this malicious act, the company plunged into its darkest chapters.
“Our employees have worked tirelessly, juggling multiple roles at once, trying to keep the business afloat and provide our colleagues with the wages they deserve.
“This has placed an undue burden on the remaining members of our team who have fought valiantly to maintain our operation. The weeks that followed were filled with sleepless nights and the need for therapy to deal with the emotional turmoil that was consuming me.
“As I struggled to make important decisions resulting from these fraudulent acts, I was constantly faced with the dilemma of whether to continue with the business or abandon it altogether.
“Eventually I decided to pump £50,000 of my personal funds into the company to try and retain as many employees as possible in the hope that one day the company would recover.
Cunningham initially claimed she was “forced” to rob the company due to personal debts, but police seized thousands of pounds worth of brand new clothing
“Unfortunately I was forced to sell my business at a reduced price, which was partly due to the profound impact these thefts had on me. You have to constantly watch your back and create new processes to make sure something like this doesn’t happen again, and there were so many of them that I thought it was time to sell.
“This harrowing experience left deep scars not only on me, but on everyone in the company who was privy to this stressful discovery.
“I earnestly implore the Government to expedite appropriate legislation to curb and minimize such crimes. They are a scourge that continues to harm small and medium-sized businesses, leaving a trail of destruction in their wake.”
The court heard the theft occurred after Cunningham was taken on by Mr Taheri as a trainee in April 2019.
Prosecutor Robin Kitching said: “She was employed in a position of trust and responsibility and her responsibilities included carrying out financial settlements, refunding customers and gaining access to the company’s banking system.
“But she set up her own bank account, which reflected the name of the company doing business with Velo, and initiated nine separate bank transfers from the company to that account between April and May of this year.”
The thefts were discovered when the company’s account showed withdrawals of “extraordinarily large” sums of money, and it was noted that all of them were transactions carried out by Cunningham.
Kitching added: “The accountant asked Miss Cunningham if it was a mistake and she said she would look into it.
“But five minutes later the company called and was informed that the defendant’s mother had been taken to hospital after suffering a stroke, which had resulted in the defendant missing work. This was clearly something she orchestrated to avoid the consequences of her own actions.
“Investigation revealed that she had transferred money from a fake account to accounts held in the name of the accused’s father, mother and sister.
Police searched her home and found a large quantity of brand new clothing and electrical items, as well as receipts for further purchases totaling a very significant amount.”
Cunningham made no comment during police questioning. She had already been convicted of fraud in 2006, and in 2008 she was sentenced to eight weeks in prison for stealing money from her former employer.
In mitigation, defense lawyer Brendan O’Leary said: ‘Miss Cunningham has endured a traumatic and distressing period with her cancer treatment and expresses genuine remorse in this matter.
“She asks me to say that the courts will never see her again, especially because she realizes the potential impact they are having on her children’s lives. She had a negative influence around her in Manchester but has since moved away to start over.
Cunningham made no comment during police questioning. She was already convicted of fraud in 2006, and in 2008 she was sentenced to eight weeks in prison for stealing money from her former employer
Cunningham, who currently lives in Chesterfield with her children, aged 14 and five, faces up to six years in prison under the guidelines, but was sentenced to 22 months suspended for two years after Judge Elizabeth Nicholls found that an immediate prison sentence would be “disproportionate” and could “punish” her children.
She told Cunningham: “It is important to remember how harmful and dramatic your behavior was. As a result of what you did, Mr. Taheri became distressed and was forced to lay off his employees and sell his business at a loss.
“It had a profound impact not only on him but also on other people who worked for him. You were partly driven by greed – it was easy to take the money, and in doing so, you only cared about yourself.
“You haven’t considered the impact your behavior has on others – on your co-workers.”
Cunningham was also ordered to wear an electronic tag for three months as part of the 7.30pm-5.30am curfew and undergo 15 days of rehabilitation activity. He will appear in court next year on proceeds of crime.