Man jailed for three and half years for longest-running welfare fraud in State history

ireland
Man Jailed For Three And Half Years For Longest-Running Welfare Fraud In State History Man Jailed For Three And Half Years For Longest-Running Welfare Fraud In State History
Donal O'Callaghan (59) pleaded guilty to 73 sample counts of social welfare fraud at Cork Circuit Criminal Court.
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Olivia Kelleher

A 59-year-old man has been jailed for three and half years for claiming pensions for his dead parents for 33 years and defrauding the State of over €500,000.

The web of deceit spun by father of one Donal (Don) O'Callaghan was only uncovered in 2020 when the Centenary Bounty cheque was offered to his 100-year-old father who had in fact been dead for over three decades.

His fraudulent claims were the largest and longest running cases of welfare fraud in the history of the State.

If his father Donald had been alive, he would have received a gift from the State of €2,540 and a special message from President Michael D Higgins.

Don O'Callaghan of Churchfield Green, Churchfield, claimed the pensions of his parents, Donald and Eileen, from 1987-2020. Donald O'Callaghan died in 1987, while Eileen died in 1979.

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The facts of the case were outlined to Judge Helen Boyle at Cork Circuit Criminal Court on Tuesday, with the judge reserving her position overnight.

'Chronic gambling addiction'

At the sentencing hearing on Wednesday, Judge Boyle said O’Callaghan was making sincere efforts to address his chronic gambling problem.

“The gambling impacts every aspect of your life. You are aware you have to deal with your chronic gambling addiction,” the judge said.

“Your life involved going to the bookies at noon and staying until at least 6pm.

“You use gambling to escape problems. You have made early steps to deal with that gambling addiction. I accept you are motivated to deal with your gambling problem.”

Judge Boyle also spoke of the adverse childhood experiences of O’Callaghan, having lost his mother as a teenager while his father passed away when he was 24-years-old.

However, Judge Boyle said the offence was in the “upper range of serious”.

“The old age pension is a social contract. By your actions the pension pool has been deprived of €500,000.

“You lied to the [social welfare)]inspector over the phone about your father reaching 100. You filled out forms. You attended in person to fill out forms.”

She said O’Callaghan had egregiously taken a picture of an elderly man he knew in order to obtain a photo ID in his father’s name for the Public Services card.

Suspicions

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Taking his lack of previous convictions into account, his guilty plea and efforts to address his gambling, the judge jailed him for four and a half years, suspending the final year of the sentence.

On Tuesday, the court heard evidence from Det Garda Michael Nagle who investigated the case.

During the detailed Garda probe, he found O'Callaghan's father had also been claiming the pension for his dead wife, even though she passed away eight years before he did.

Det Garda Nagle said that in July 2020, a social welfare inspector became aware that a person named Donald O'Callaghan was due to reach 100-years-old and therefore was entitled to the President's Bounty.

Their understanding was that Mr and Mrs O'Callaghan were in receipt of a State pension, being paid to Donal, with Eileen included on the same pension as opposed to two separate pensions. The pensions were being collected at the GPO in Cork.

Normal practice is for the inspector to call to the home of the person due to receive the special Presidential payment, but because of Covid-19, a phone call was made to the house.

The defendant answered the call and confirmed he lived at the house in Churchfield with his parents. He also said his father was willing to accept the payment.

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O'Callaghan filled out all the paperwork required to receive the Bounty payment. However, the inspector was not able to confirm any details through the normal channels such as the public health nurse.

He contacted local GP's and home help services, but nobody seemed to be familiar with Donald and Eileen O'Callaghan.

Det Garda Nagle did a trawl of records in a bid to find death certificates, but this proved unsuccessful. His suspicions aroused when he began checking cemeteries in Cork, finding both graves in the city.

Eileen's grave was at Tory Top Road cemetery, having dies in 1979, aged 57. Donald's grave was located in Douglas cemetery where he was buried after his death in 1987, aged 68.

'An extraordinary case'

O'Callaghan, who has a child in Thailand where he frequently went on holiday, was arrested on October 9th, 2020 following a surveillance operation in the GPO in Cork.

He claimed the fortnightly pension payment of €961.60 at the post office using a Public Services card, readily admitting the offences to Gardaí.

Defending barrister Ray Boland SC said that being uncovered was a relief to O'Callaghan, whom he claimed had difficulties with gambling. The bookies stopped him from gambling on-site when the allegations emerged.

Over the years, he completed document to support the claims. In June 2014, a form was posted out to the O'Callaghan home regarding the completion of a Public Services card. Initially the card could be completed by post.

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O'Callaghan sent off a picture of his late father which did not meet the criteria for the card, prompting him to use a photograph of an elderly man he knew in order to qualify for the card.

At one point O'Callaghan was receiving €700 per week when the pension payments were combined with his claims for Job Seekers Allowance, which the court heard he had also claimed for over thirty years.

He was the official collector of the two pensions being claimed, as he claimed his father had difficulties walking to the post office.

Defence counsel said that it was "an extraordinary case": "He took a chance and when he wasn't caught he just kept going. He seized the opportunity."

Mr Boland added that his client lived in the house he grew up in and had no trappings of wealth. He claimed O'Callaghan had a chronic gambling addiction which he was addressing.

Det Garda Nagle said O'Callaghan noticed the pension book in the house after his father's death. "He attempted to collect it the following week and when successful he continued throughout the years with the completion of various documents.

"His father was collecting a pension also for his dead wife. His father must have applied for a joint pension. It was already in place."

Mr Boland added that his client experienced "a huge sense of relief" when he was caught "as he had lived in fear of being found out".

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Three eligibility certificates were sent to the house to be completed in 1996, 2013 and 2017. Det Garda Nagle said these certificates were returned completed and signed appearing to have been submitted by Donald O'Callaghan but instead signed by the accused.

Over the years, O'Callaghan fraudulently claimed the pensions on almost 1,700 occasions, totalling €527,000.

Gardaí recovered just under €11,000 of the funds, along with €9,800 found at his home and €961 seized from the defendant on the day of his arrest.

Mr O'Callaghan pleaded guilty to 73 sample counts of social welfare fraud, of which 68 counts relate to theft and five relate to false documentation in support of the claims.

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