Two men have been remanded in custody after they pleaded guilty to conspiring with others to defraud the state of over €180,000 by improperly obtaining the Pandemic Unemployment Payment (PUP) over a nine-month period during the height of the Coronavirus 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 proceeds 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.
In addition, he pleaded guilty to a 12th charge that he possessed a stolen UK passport at his home at Brookdale, Midleton on November 13th 2020, contrary to Section 18 of the Criminal Justice (Theft and Fraud Offences) Act 2001.
Det Garda Eimhear Keeshan, on secondment to the Department of Social Protection from the National Garda Economic Crime Bureau, told Cork Circuit Criminal Court that 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 Garda Kieran Crowley of Midleton Garda Station who stopped a black E Class Mercedes in Midleton on November 6th 2020 and he became suspicious when the driver, Lewis became extremely nervous.
Det Garda 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 Garda Keeshan examined the phone which linked Lewis to his co-accused, Aderibigbe while her colleague Det Garda Trevor Conroy discovered PUP claims had been made in the names of people who would not have been entitled to claim it.
Det Garda 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.
She told how gardaí froze a number of bank accounts, containing a total of €32,458 but the remainder of the money had not been recovered and there was evidence of some it being laundered through accounts in Germany, leaving the State over €150,000 out of pocket.
Defence barrister for Lewis, Tom Power BL said that his client had assisted the state by indicating at district court level that he would be entering a signed plea of guilty, sparing gardaí having to prepare a complex book of evidence as well as a complex trial that could have lasted six to eight weeks.
He pleaded for leniency, saying that his client, who has no previous convictions, had come to Ireland from Nigeria five years ago and was involved in a relationship with an Irishwoman by whom he has a four-year-old child while he was also supporting a nine-year-old-child back in Nigeria.
“He attends his local church and instructs children in how to use DJ equipment and that kind of thing. He became embroiled in this. He is not as a ringleader. He does not have a substantial lifestyle as a result of his involvement. How he became embroiled is something of a mystery.”
Mr Power said that his client did not have access to substantial sums of money himself but he was anxious to try and raise some compensation with assistance from his family and friends and he hoped to raise €5,000 to offer in compensation if the case could be put back for a week.
Defence barrister for Aderibigbe, Sinead Behan BL said that her client had come to Ireland in 2002 from Nigeria and had been working as a taxi driver, supporting his family including five young children all under the age of 12, when the Covid 19 pandemic struck.
“Covid came, temptation arose and he succumbed. And he was in difficulty with his income from taxi-driving. He could have skipped the country but he stood his ground and abided by his bail conditions. He is involved with his local church,” said Ms Behan.
Ms Behan said that her client, who was granted asylum in 2005 and later granted Irish citizenship, had come to court with €6,000 in compensation and was anxious to have an opportunity to gather together more money to present to the court as a sign of his genuine remorse for his offending.
“The signed plea of guilty which he entered is the standout mitigating factor saving on time and costs in preparation of a book of evidence... He has shown remorse coming up with money to show he is sorry for what he has done. He lives in modest circumstances.”
Judge Helen Boyle granted the applications by both Mr Power and Ms Behan for adjournments to allow both men come up with compensation and she adjourned sentencing until November 10th and remanded both in custody after being told they did not need to be at liberty to raise the money.
Earlier, prosecution barrister, Imelda Kelly BL said that the underlying offence of conspiracy to defraud to which both defendants had pleaded guilty, carried a maximum sentence of 14 years while the other charges against Lewis of possession of fake documents and theft carried five year terms.