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Rich pickings Man claimed dead parents’ pensions for 33 years in longest-running welfare fraud ever

Don O’Callaghan collected €527,414 between 1987 and 2020

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Don O'Callaghan pictured at Cork District Court. Photo: Michael Mac Sweeney/Cork Courts Limited

Don O'Callaghan pictured at Cork District Court. Photo: Michael Mac Sweeney/Cork Courts Limited

Don O'Callaghan pictured at Cork District Court. 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 was only caught after officials became suspicious about a special State payment due to mark his late father's 100th birthday.

Don O'Callaghan (59) 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.

Cork Circuit Criminal Court was told it was the largest and longest-running social welfare fraud in the history of the State.

O'Callaghan was only caught when gardaí attached to the Department of Social Protection were alerted to the fact no one could find any evidence that the defendant's parents, Donal 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.

Gardaí 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.

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 gardaí in October 9, 2020.

Judge Helen Boyle was told that O'Callaghan - who is single but has a son in Thailand - suffered from a serious gambling addiction.

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 is €527,414.

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Gardaí 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, gardaí were notified.

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

"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.

Gardaí 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 gardaí 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 gardaí 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 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.

Judge Boyle adjourned sentencing until Wednesday (Feb 16) to allow time for her to consider experts reports.

Cork District Court was previously told that 68 of the 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.

The district court was told that the 73 charges related to dates over a 33 year period.

O'Callaghan appeared before Cork Circuit Criminal Court last October on a signed plea of guilty.

Each of the 68 theft charges alleged that pension payments were claimed in respect of his parents, pretending they were alive when in fact they were deceased.

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