sheepish swindler | 

Mum who fraudulently claimed benefits for nine years dodges jail to care for daughter

McCullagh entered guilty pleas to two counts of benefit fraud in relation to income support and housing benefit

Emma McCullagh Pic: Conor McCaughley

Steven Moore and Paul Higgins

This is the "shy" fraudster who brazenly claimed almost £200,000 (€238k) in benefits she wasn't entitled to.

Emma McCullough was convicted recently of swindling the public purse out of a whopping £149,000 (€178k) worth of income support and a further £43,000 (€51k) of housing benefit.

A judge at Newry Crown Court told the 39-year-old that given her dishonesty, which continued for a full nine years, she should have been going to jail.

But he spared her that punishment because of the fact she cares for her teenage daughter whose life, the judge said, would be "destroyed".

When confronted by the Sunday World, the crafty con-artist turned shy and refused to confirm her identity.

Eventually when told we couldn't tell her what it was about until we knew we were speaking to Emma McCullough, she admitted it was her.

We wanted to ask her how she thought she could swindle taxpayers' cash by pretending she couldn't work when she was working all along.

We also wanted to ask her if she felt lucky she had escaped going to prison.

But she apparently saw no 'benefit' in talking to us about her almost 10-year crime spree.

Sentencing McCullagh at Newry Crown Court last November, Judge Gordon Kerr QC said while it was "absolutely clear beyond peradventure" that her offences warranted a "significant prison sentence", her daughter's medical needs were such that "effectively, she is the only person who can provide the assistance" her child needs.

McCullagh, from Knockview Drive in Tandragee, Co Armagh, had entered guilty pleas to two counts of benefit fraud in relation to income support and housing benefit on dates between April 1, 2008 and October 31, 2017.

The court heard that while initially genuine claims, McCullagh had failed to tell the authorities that she was working and that had resulted in her fraudulently claiming £149,000 of income support and £43,000 of housing benefit, making a total of £192,000.

Defence counsel Damien Halleron highlighted there was no evidence of "luxurious or high living" but rather McCullagh had used the swindled money "to keep her family and children", it was claimed.

She's not the first benefit fraudster to be 'doled' out a bit of leniency from the same judge based on the fact she has children.

In 2020 mum-of-four Gemma McCartan narrowly escaped going to jail after scamming a quarter of a million pounds in fake benefit claims.

Newry Crown Court heard Judge Kerr described the fraud case as "one of the worst I have come across".

He also revealed that with the rate she was repaying the £212,997 she swindled from the state, "it would take 276 years" for her to make full restitution.

McCartan, from Ardfield Crescent in Warrenpoint, pleaded guilty to eight counts of benefit fraud in relation to income support and housing benefit over a 14-year period beginning on April 18, 2002.

But ultimately, as in the case of Emma McCullough, her children saved her from a lengthy spell behind bars.

Judge Kerr said that while her offences clearly merited a jail sentence, "the court will always be slow to send someone to prison where there are young children's futures involved".

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