By Neil Ritchie

FORMER production manager James Watchorn has been released from jail on appeal, after serving five weeks of a 30-month prison term for the theft of geoscience information from former employer TAG Oil.

The Court of Appeal in Wellington found in late August that sentence of imprisonment was too high and that at most the penalty should have been home detention.

The judges, Justice Mark O’Regan, Justice Jillian Mallon and Justice Simon France, otherwise reserved their decision on his conviction and sentence.

Mr Watchorn’s lawyer Susan Hughes QG told the court that her client was only charged in relation to a download made during June 2012, but another download, of similar size and content to the first tranche made the next month had also been taken into account during the New Plymouth District Court trial.

She said Judge Allan Roberts had punished Mr Watchorn for both downloads, though they were made under different circumstances.

His intent for the second download, made when Mr Watchorn was TAG production manager, was a “back-up download” done the day before heading to Canada for an extended break as he expected to do some work while he was overseas.

He had that data for 82 days, did not show it to any third party, and had never intended to sell it. The data had been on an open drive, Mr Watchorn downloaded it during office hours and no subterfuge was involved. There seemed to have been no deliberate targeting of specific files.

The second download was done after his return and on his last day with TAG before going to work for TAG’s direct competitor New Zealand Energy Corporation.

This download was in line with his previous practice of taking large amounts of information from employers to maintain his reference library.

However, Crown lawyer Mathew Downs said there was uncontested evidence at the earlier New Plymouth District Court trial that all the downloaded information was worth millions of dollars.

It was accepted Mr Watchorn had a wide-ranging brief and needed access to some of the data to do his work but there was no evidence at that trial to support the proposition Mr Watchorn needed the data while he was in Canada.

It was also clear from the evidence that no one had given him permission to download the entirety of TAG’s server.

The Employment Relations Authority (ERA) earlier ordered Watchorn to pay NZ$65,567 in special damages to TAG for professional negligence and breach of contract. It further ordered him to pay four penalties of NZ$3000, half of which (NZ$6000) was to be paid to TAG and half to the Crown.