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Don wrong Cork gambling addict who claimed dead parents' pensions for 33 years is jailed

The social welfare fraud carried out by Don O’Callaghan is the longest running in the history of the State and netted over €500k

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Don O'Callaghan pictured at Cork District Court where he appeared on fraud charges Photo: Michael Mac Sweeney/Cork Courts Limited

Don O'Callaghan pictured at Cork District Court where he appeared on fraud charges Photo: Michael Mac Sweeney/Cork Courts Limited

Don O'Callaghan pictured at Cork District Court where he appeared on fraud charges Photo: Michael Mac Sweeney/Cork Courts Limited

A man who conducted a €500,000 social welfare fraud over 33 years by claiming pension payments for his dead parents has been jailed for three and a half years.

Don O'Callaghan (59) - who was only caught after officials became suspicious about a special State payment due to mark his late father's 100th birthday - was told his fraud had flagrantly breached Ireland's social contract which underpins the entire social welfare system.

Judge Helen Boyle at Cork Circuit Criminal Court noted it was the largest and longest-running social welfare fraud in the history of the State.

"The old age pension is a social contract and by your actions the pension pool has been deprived of €500,000," she warned.

"You lied to the (Department of Social Protection) inspector over the phone about your father reaching a hundred. You filled out forms. You attended in person to fill out forms.”

Judge Boyle also noted that O'Callaghan had even taken a photo of an elderly man he knew to submit it as a fake picture of his dead father to secure a PPS card.

She ruled it was an offence at the upper end of the spectrum.

However, she noted O'Callaghan's chronic gambling addiction, the fact he had no previous convictions, his co-operation with Gardaí, his early guilty plea and the blows he had suffered early in his life, losing his mother while just a teenager and his father when he was aged 24.

“The gambling impacts every aspect of your life. You are aware you have to deal with your chronic gambling addiction. Your life involved going to the bookies at noon and staying until at least 6pm," she said.

"You used the gambling to escape your problems. You have made early steps to deal with that gambling addiction and I accept you are motivated to deal with your gambling problem.”

Judge Boyle imposed a four and a half year prison sentence, suspending the final 12 months of the term. O'Callaghan was at one point receiving €700 per week when his

fraudulent claims for his dead parents' pensions were combined with his legitimate claim for job seekers allowance.

He was only caught when Gardai attached to the Department of Social Protection were alerted to the fact no one could find any evidence that the defendant's parents, Donald and Eileen O'Callaghan, were alive and entitled to the offer of a €2,540 centenary bounty and a special letter of congratulations from President Michael D Higgins.

Gardai later traced the graves of Donald and Eileen O'Callaghan - with Donald having died aged 68 years in November 1987 and Eileen having died aged 57 years in March 1979.

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O'Callaghan had claimed pension payments for his dead parents for 33 years - with his mother dead for 41 years when he was finally confronted about the fraudulent pension claims by Gardai on October 9, 2020.

O'Callaghan is single but has a son in Thailand.

The court heard that, having claimed his parents' pensions, he would go to a nearby bookmakers in Cork city centre and start gambling.

O'Callaghan of Churchfield Green, Cork appeared on signed pleas of guilty to a total of 73 charges.

Defence counsel Ray Boland SC explained that O'Callaghan suffers from a serious gambling problem.

"The situation is that he has a gambling addiction and gambled it all away," he said.

The total amount involved in the offences between 1987 and 2020 was €527,414.

He had made a total of 1,700 separate claims over the 33 year period.

Gardai recovered just under €11,000 of the monies taken - €961 seized from O'Callaghan after he had just claimed his dead parents' pensions at Cork GPO and a further €9,800 located in his home.

The court was told he did not live a lavish lifestyle with the only other spending noted being several trips to Thailand to see his son.

Detective Garda Michael Nagle, who is attached to the Department of Social Protection, said the fraud came to light when a social welfare inspector became suspicious about the payment of the centenary bounty to O'Callaghan's father.

Because of the Covid-19 pandemic, a social welfare officer could not call to the O'Callaghan home to verify the centenary payment requirements were fully complied with.

The defendant had indicated that the centenary bounty would be accepted.

However, when officials were unable to locate any supporting data on Donald or Eileen O'Callaghan, Gardai were notified.

The district nurse and local doctors had no record of the duo.

"I conducted surveillance of the (Churchfield Green) house and carried out several other inquiries but I was unable to verify that either of the elderly couple were alive," he said.

Gardai eventually managed to locate their two graves following investigations at local cemeteries in September 2020.

Donald O'Callaghan was found to be buried in Douglas while Eileen O'Callaghan was found to be buried at Tory Top Road cemetery.

A subsequent search of files revealed Don O'Callaghan had falsely submitted supporting documentation for the pension claims for his dead parents at various times over 33 years.

In June 2014, when an old photo of his father had been rejected as being of insufficient quality for a Public Services Card, he took a photograph of an elderly man he knew and who was the same age as his dead father and then submitted this instead.

That photo was accepted and O'Callaghan continued with the pension claims.

He was the official collector of the two pension payments which were paid fortnightly.

Det Garda Nagle said O'Callaghan was arrested by Gardai outside Cork GPO on October 9 2020 having just claimed €961.60 in pension payments for his deceased parents.

The detective said O'Callaghan cooperated fully with Gardai and made full admissions about what he had done.

Defence counsel Ray Boland SC said the offences commenced when O'Callaghan was going through his late father's papers in 1987 and found pension forms which had been already filled out by his father.

Mr Boland - who said his client has always lived in the family home – acknowledged it was "an extraordinary case."

"He took a chance and when he wasn't caught he just kept going. He seized the opportunity."

At one point, O'Callaghan even applied for a special fuel allowance for his dead parents.

O'Callaghan had been in receipt of job seekers allowance for three decades.

Mr Boland said it was with "a huge sense of relief" that O'Callaghan was discovered as the defendant had been living in constant fear of being caught.

He said his client also welcomed the opportunity to receive help for his chronic gambling addiction.

A psychotherapist report had been conducted to assist the court but Mr Boland said it was recommended that his client now attend a gambling diversion programme given his addiction.

He said O'Callaghan had not gambled for four months but would require a residential gambling treatment programme given the scale of his addiction.

"It is a very deep-seated addiction," he explained.

Some 68 of the sample counts facing O'Callaghan involved theft.

Five counts related to false documentation submitted in respect of fraudulent claims to the Department of Social Protection (DSP) over the years.

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