Dublin pensioner avoids jail after stealing €100k in false social welfare claims
A Dublin pensioner who stole over €100,000 by using her sister's social welfare card to fraudulently claim benefits has avoided jail on condition she carries out 240 hours community service.
Marie McMahon (68), a former women's rights campaigner, told gardai that when her sister Katherine emigrated to America in 1992, her friend initially used the woman's social welfare card to pick up her benefits. When this woman went into hospital McMahon agreed to continue collecting the payments and they split the money between them.
This woman died in 2012 and McMahon continued to collect her sister's benefits until she was detected through facial recognition technology in July 2014.
She told officers that she believed if she stopped collecting the money, social welfare would have to start an investigation and she would be caught, so she decided to continue with the fraud.
McMahon of Aideen Avenue, Terenure, Dublin pleaded guilty at Dublin Circuit Criminal Court to 13 charges of stealing various amounts of social welfare payments from James's Street Post Office on dates between September 1, 2002 and June 11, 2014. She has one previous conviction for possession of drugs from 1979.
At the original sentence hearing in March, Lorcan Staines BL, defending, handed in a large volume of testimonials and said his client had been involved in a protest movement in relation to woman's rights for many years.
The case was adjourned to June when Mr Staines told the court that friends of McMahon had become aware of the case due to the media attention and had gathered €6,000 towards repayment of the money stolen. She was also paying €15 per week from her benefits.
Yesterday, Judge Melanie Greally noted that many people coming before the courts were now being detected through facial imaging systems.
“Persons who think that they will get away with social welfare fraud need to wake up,” she warned.
She said McMahon's fall from grace and loss of reputation had been considerable. She said she accepted McMahon did not use the money for her own needs and noted very impressive testimonials had been handed up on her behalf.
Judge Greally imposed a five-year sentence which she suspended in full on condition McMahon carry out 240 hours community service and continue to pay €15 per week to the Department of Social Protection.
At the original sentence hearing Garda Richard Pender accepted that McMahon had one son, who she said was trouble as a child and that she was forced to pay out drug debts on his behalf on more than 20 occasions.
Mr Staines said McMahon's case had rightfully been widely reported in the media and asked the court to take into account the significant impact this has had on her.
He submitted that McMahon was a woman who posed no risk to society and had provided very significant assistance to society in her earlier life. He said she had expressed remorse and was at low risk of re-offending. He said her health difficulties did not disqualify her from community service.
Tony McGillicuddy BL, prosecuting, told Judge Greally that the Director of Public Prosecutions accepted the pleas as sample counts and that the fraud had been going on from 2002 to 2014. A total of €101,538.80 was stolen.
McMahon told gardaí in interview that she had been collecting it for 20 years.
Garda Richard Pender said McMahon was caught when she arrived at a social welfare office in 2013 and staff felt that the passport photo she presented didn't match the photo on the card.
Further analysis through facial recognition technology concluded that she was not Katherine McMahon as she had pretended to be.
Patrick Brennan, a social welfare inspector then called to her house in December that year, took her details and spoke to her at length. He later tried to call to a different address provided for Katherine McMahon but couldn't get an answer.
In July 2014 he asked for Katherine McMahon to call at his office for interview and the accused turned up. She insisted she was Katherine McMahon but he recognised her as Marie McMahon.
Mr Brennan asked the woman if she remembered meeting him before but she said she couldn't recall him.
He then rang the mobile number he had for Marie McMahon and the woman's phone went off in her pocket. When he told her it was him ringing her, she admitted that she remembered meeting him and confirmed that she had been claiming her sister's benefit for almost 20 years.
Katherine McMahon's payments were suspended from that date. McMahon was arrested and interviewed by gardaí. She made full admissions.
Gda Pender agreed with Lorcan Staines BL, defending, that although gardaí obviously couldn't investigate McMahon's claim that another woman had first started taking her sister's benefit, he felt it was a believable story.
He accepted that she lived in “very difficult circumstances” and had no trappings of wealth.
Sonya McLean/Fiona Ferguson