By Neil Ritchie

NEW ZEALAND’S Court of Appeal has quashed the prison convictions of Canadian-born oil man James Watchorn, after he was initially sentenced to 30 months’ imprisonment for the theft of confidential information from former employer TAG Oil.

District Court Judge Allan Roberts had found Watchorn guilty on three counts of accessing a computer for dishonest purposes, stealing geotechnical data by illegally downloading files containing TAG’s “secret recipes” for locating oil and gas fields.

This was before Watchorn left to go to work for rival New Zealand Energy Corporation in mid-2012.

The New Plymouth District Court sentenced Mr Watchorn to 30 months’ imprisonment in July but he was released after having spent only five weeks in jail when the Court of Appeal initially ruled the 30-month prison term was too harsh.

Then, in early October, the Court of Appeal released its ruling on Watchorn’s appeal against his convictions, saying: “We conclude that the convictions entered in the district court should be quashed, but only on the ground conceded by the Crown, namely that computer data is not ‘property’ as defined.

“Having rejected all other grounds of appeal, it is now necessary for us to address the Crown’s submission that we should substitute convictions based on obtaining a ‘benefit’,” the court added.

However, Appeal Court judges Justice Mark O’Regan, Justice Jillian Mallon and Justice Simon France said: “We consider the grounds for substituting new verdicts are not met in the present case” and they did not order a retrial.

The Employment Relations Authority (ERA) had last June ordered Watchorn to pay NZ$65,567 in special damages to TAG for professional negligence and breach of contract.

The ERA further ordered Watchorn to pay four penalties of NZ$3000, half of which (NZ$6000) was to be paid to TAG and half to the Crown.