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Man who claimed pensions of his dead parents was following in footsteps of father

Don O’Callaghan (59) jailed for three and a half years for largest and longest running known case of welfare fraud in State history

A man who was jailed for fraudulently claiming the pensions of his dead parents for 33 years was in reality just following in the footsteps of his father.

Don O’Callaghan (59), was jailed for three and a half years for claiming the pensions of his deceased parents, Eileen and Donald O’Callaghan. Donald died in 1987 at the age of 68. He had been predeceased by his wife Eileen who passed away at the age of 57 in 1979. Donald senior had claimed a pension for his long-deceased wife for a short period before he passed away in 1987.

Cork Circuit Criminal Court head evidence from Det Garda Michael Nagle who indicated that when he was investigating Don O'Callaghan for fraud, he stumbled across similar behaviour by Donald O'Callaghan, the father of the defendant.

Det Garda Nagle recalled looking at the original pension file for Donald and Eileen O’Callaghan, dating back to 1986.

“The evidence suggests that the pension was originally applied for by Donald O’Callaghan, and it would appear that it was he who included his wife on the application, resulting in a double payment, although she had died seven years previously.”

Following the death of his father in 1987 the young Don, who was just 24, noticed the pension book in the house. The court heard that gambling had started to have a grip on him from a young age.

A hurler with much talent and potential, if it was a choice between a match or gambling, he chose the latter. Given the opportunity and lure of easy money, he travelled to the GPO, which is the central post office in Cork city centre, to collect the pensions.

Visibly relieved

He knew he wouldn’t be recognised there. There was no postmaster or postmistress to say, “But isn’t your father buried out in Douglas cemetery?”

Mr O’Callaghan was visibly relieved when he was handed down a sentence of four and half years, with one year suspended, after taking part in a fraud operation from 1987 to 2020 which robbed the pension pool of just over half a million euro.

He mouthed “thank you” to the judge and gave a slight bow before being led away to serve his time.

The €700 a week he pocketed, care of the two State pensions he claimed, is now gone, and for the moment he is not claiming Job Seeker’s Allowance, having been on the payment for three decades.

It is not known whether his home in Churchfield is privately owned or a local authority house. There were no signs of a lavish lifestyle, other than holidaying in Thailand. He has a son with an ex-partner in Thailand.

Mr O’Callaghan also doesn’t have to concern himself with paying any compensation for having defrauded the State of half a million euro.

His barrister Ray Boland, SC, said that in fact O'Callaghan was relieved to have been found out because once he had started collecting the pensions, there appeared to be no way out in which he wouldn't shine a spotlight on his wrongdoing.

It was also suggested through the various court sittings leading up to the sentencing that O’Callaghan had simply gambled all the money away.

Unravelled

The entire story unravelled when O'Callaghan, by then collecting the pensions of his dead parents for over three decades, received a phone call in 2020 from a social welfare inspector. The inspector asked whether his father was willing to accept the centenary cheque from President Higgins, which he was his entitlement as he was set to turn 100 years old.

Don told the inspector he was still living with his parents at the family home in Churchfield on the north side of Cork city. He said his father Donald would of course be delighted to receive the sum of €2,540 from the State to celebrate his milestone birthday.

Don was collecting their pensions as their official collection agent, as he had claimed his father was not strong enough on his feet to walk to the post office.

The decision by Don O’Callaghan to readily accept the Centenary Bounty was his undoing. He was informed that home visits which are the normal protocol to discuss the payment were off the agenda because of the pandemic.

Lulled into a false sense of security and tempted by the allure of easy cash, he took the risk of accepting the Centenary Bounty and said that he would fill in the paperwork on behalf of his father.

However, routine checks by the social welfare inspector prior to issuing the cheque led to the alarm being raised. The public health nurse had been contacted, as had GPs and home-helps in the area, as well as all the hospitals in the city. Extraordinarily, nobody knew Donald and Eileen O’Callaghan.

Gardaí were contacted and Det Garda Michael Nagle was assigned to the case.

Trawled cemeteries

Det Garda Nagle couldn't find any death certificates for the O'Callaghans. So he vigilantly trawled cemeteries in search of headstones for the pair. The garda, who is based in the Department of Social Protection, told the court that in September 2020 he located the grave of Eileen O'Callaghan at Tory Top Road cemetery, while he found the grave of Donald in Douglas cemetery, both on the southside of Cork city.

In June 2014, an application form for a public services card had been sent to Donald O’ Callaghan at his address. The public services card process could, for an initial period, be completed by post without the requirement to attend in person, for example in the case of an elderly individual such as Donald O’ Callaghan.

This form was returned completed with Donald O’Callaghan’s information, as though completed and signed by him. A photograph was returned with the form, as required for inclusion on the card. The department deemed that the quality of the photograph was too poor to use on the card. Garda Nagle said they sent a letter to Donald O’ Callaghan’s address, requesting a better-quality photograph of him.

Garda Nagle said another photograph was subsequently sent to the Department for inclusion on the card.

Photograph accepted

“It transpires that this photograph was taken by Don O’ Callaghan of an elderly man whom he knew, who was of a similar age to what his father Donald O’ Callaghan would have been. He had no other suitable photograph of his father and took the photograph of this male in order to ensure that the fraud continued. With nothing to compare it to and no reason to suspect anything untoward, this photograph was accepted by the Department, and in February 2015, a public services card was issued to Donald O’Callaghan, by post, bearing the photograph of this unknown elderly male. This public services card was located during the search of Don O’ Callaghan’s home.”

Don also submitted an application for fuel allowance for his dead parents on one occasion. It was not indicated whether he had received funds for heating from the State.

The meticulous investigation by Det Garda Nagle finally rumbled the 33-year scam.

Det Garda Nagle said that Mr O’Callaghan carried out the largest and longest-running known case of welfare fraud in State history.

Surveillance was placed on the O’Callaghan family home in Churchfield. Garda Nagle then obtained CCTV of pensions being collected three times at the GPO, Cork, in August and September 2020, all by a man whom he believed to be Don O’Callaghan.

On October 9th, 2020, he conducted further surveillance at GPO Cork. He arrested Don O’Callaghan, who had just collected the the fortnightly pension payment of €961.60 in cash.

Mr O’Callaghan made full admissions in relation to the collection of his parents’ pensions from 1987 to 2020. Garda located €9,800 in cash, suspected to be part of the pension payments, at the home of Mr O’Callaghan. They also seized the pension money he picked up on the day of his arrest.

Extraordinary case

Defence barrister Ray Boland acknowledged that it was an “extraordinary case”.

“He (Don) took a chance and when he wasn’t caught he just kept going. He seized the opportunity.”

He cited his client’s chronic gambling addictions. O’Callaghan didn’t participate in online gambling, but it was claimed that he spent significant money in his regular visits to the bookies. When the allegations against Mr O’Callaghan emerged he was refused further entry to a chain of bookmakers.

Det Garda Nagle said O’Callaghan appeared to have a good quality of living and had travelled abroad on a number of occasions. He was regularly sending payments by money transfer to his child’s mother, for support of his child. However, they weren’t extravagant payments and Don continued to live in his childhood home.

In the 33 years during which the fraud was committed, almost 1,700 separate collections of pensions were made by Don O’ Callaghan and a total of €527,000 was collected.

Mr O’Callaghan pleaded guilty to 73 sample counts of social welfare fraud dating back over three decades. Sixty-eight counts relate to theft, while five refer to false documentation in support of the fraudulent claims.

All of the theft offences occurred at Cork GPO on Oliver Plunkett Street in Cork, with the forgery offences taking place at the office of the Department of Social Protection on Hanover Street in Cork.

At the sentencing hearing, Judge Boyle said while it was a case in the "upper range of seriousness", O'Callaghan had been making an effort to conquer his gambling which she said had ruined every aspect of his life, including his relationships and friendships.

Judge Boyle said O’Callaghan used gambling to escape his problems and that he was at the bookies’ from noon to 6pm daily.

She emphasised the offence was serious in that 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. You filled out forms. You attended in person to fill out forms.”

She cited as particularly upsetting a decision by O’Callaghan to egregiously take a picture of a man he knew which he passed off as his father for the purpose of obtaining a public services card.

Judge Boyle took the lack of previous convictions, the guilty plea, his co-operation with gardaí and the efforts to address his gambling into consideration before sentencing O’Callaghan to four and a half years, with a year suspended.

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