Two men have been jailed for conspiring with others to defraud the state of over €180,000 through obtaining fraudulent Pandemic Unemployment Payments (PUP) over a nine month period during the height of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Oluwagbewikeke Lewis (36) from Brookdale, Midleton, Co Cork and Bashiru Aderibigbe (45) of Banogue, Midleton, Co Cork both pleaded guilty to the same conspiracy following an intensive investigation by gardaí in Midleton and the National Garda Economic Crime Bureau in Dublin.
They each pleaded guilty to conspiring with each other and with persons unknown within the state between April 1st, 2020 and December 8th, 2020 to convert, transfer, handle, acquire or possess property being the process of crime, contrary to Section 71 of the Criminal Justice Act 2006.
Lewis also pleaded guilty to five counts of possessing false passports and five counts of possessing false Permanent TSB Bank statements on dates between February 14th 2019 and November 13th 2020, contrary to Section 29(2) and (6) of the Criminal Justice (Theft and Fraud Offences) Act 2001.
On Wednesday at Cork Circuit Criminal Court, Judge Helen Boyle sentenced Lewis to four years in jail but suspended the final year, leaving him with three years to serve while she sentenced Aderibigbe to three and a half years with the final year suspended, leaving him with 30 months to serve.
Det Gda Eimhear Keeshan, on secondment to the Department of Social Protection from the National Garda Economic Crime Bureau, told an earlier court sitting how the two accused were part of a conspiracy which involved criminals obtaining PPS numbers from people working in the state.
Some members of the gang hacked information which contained the email addresses of HSE and Tusla staff and they were then targeted by the gang on the presumption that they would be working through the pandemic and would thus not be claiming the PUP.
The gang sent fake emails from bodies styling themselves Court Services, District Court Ireland and Justice Ireland, informing HSE and Tusla staff they had been selected for jury service and asking them to click on a link and provide their name, mother's maiden name, date of birth and PPS number.
Some 74 people responded and filled in their details which the criminals then used to apply for PUP and a total of €183,491 was paid out in fraudulent claims and lodged in a total of 57 bank accounts set up with An Post and Prepaid Financial Services, she said.
The National Garda Economic Crime Bureau investigation followed from an investigation by Det Gda Kieran Crowley of Midleton garda station who stopped a car in Midleton on November 6th, 2020 and he became suspicious when the driver, Lewis, became very nervous.
Det Gda Crowley told the court that when he searched Lewis’s car, he found two false passports bearing Lewis’s photo and two false Permanent TSB bank statements as well as a mobile phone which was then forwarded to the National Garda Economic Crime Bureau for examination.
The court heard that Det Gda Keeshan examined the phone which linked Lewis to his co-accused, Aderibigbe while her colleague Det Gda Trevor Conroy discovered PUP claims had been made in the names of people who would not have been entitled to claim it.
Det Gda Keeshan said that gardaí found WhatsApp text messages and voice recordings involving Lewis and Aderibigbe as well as conversations between Lewis and two other people identified as the Chairman and Ebony 3 where they discussed laundering €1.5 million euro.
Defence barristers, Tom Power BL for Lewis and Sinead Behan BL for Aderibigbe pointed out that both their clients had spared the state a complex and lengthy trial that could have run for up to eight weeks by their guilty pleas as they pleaded for leniency for both men.
Judge Boyle said she accepted that neither man displayed any evidence of having lived a "high lifestyle" or had any obvious trappings of wealth while she also accepted they had spared the state the need to prepare a book of evidence and a lengthy trial by their early pleas which were significant.
Judge Boyle said that both men assisted a crime organisation in committing a cyber crime after a data breach and that was a serious offence as was the setting up of false accounts which were used to deposit the stolen payments to which they had no entitlement.
“You breached the social contract in setting up these false accounts. You deliberately set out to defraud a system that was set up to for people in genuine difficulty,” she said, adding it was serious offence and a jail term was necessary to deter others from engaging in any similar crime.