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Friday 15 December 2017

Gardai probe suspected abuses of farming scheme

Under the AEOS scheme, farmers who applied to the scheme were entitled to reimbursement of non-productive capital investments to a certain maximum limit. (Stock picture)
Under the AEOS scheme, farmers who applied to the scheme were entitled to reimbursement of non-productive capital investments to a certain maximum limit. (Stock picture)

Simon Rowe

Gardai have launched a criminal investigation into hundreds of suspected abuses of a scheme which reimbursed farmers for certain capital investments.

A business-consultancy firm that issued hundreds of claims on behalf of farmers under an EU-funded environmental-protection scheme is at the centre of the criminal probe that has seen the Department of Agriculture recover about €1m in overclaims and penalties.

A total of 400 claims issued by one "private agricultural planner" have been investigated by the Department of Agriculture on foot of suspicions of suspected inappropriate expenditure.

Out of those 400 investigated, 290 were found to have included inflated invoices for purchases of trees and hedgerows for fencing under the Agri-Environment Options Scheme (AEOS).

Under the AEOS scheme, farmers who applied to the scheme were entitled to reimbursement of non-productive capital investments to a certain maximum limit.

The scheme was co-funded by the Irish Exchequer and the EU.

"In the region of €3m has been paid out to the 300 or so cases involved up to the period of the commencement of the investigation," said a spokeswoman for Minister for Agriculture Michael Creed.

"Undue payments recovered and penalties imposed are approximately €1m. A small number of cases remain to be completed at this time. The matter is the subject of a criminal investigation and the Department will not be making any further comment," she added.

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In correspondence to the Dail's Public Accounts Committee on March 23 last, senior civil servants at the Department of Agriculture assured TDs and Senators that the scheme has been closed to new applicants and that financial checks are now more vigilant.

"The investigation has demonstrated the importance of continuous vigilance by the Department in relation to all payment claims, wrote Department officials.

"It has also highlighted the importance of the verification checks carried out on an annual basis in individual schemes, to ensure State and EU funds are safeguarded and disbursed in a correct and appropriate manner".

The investigation began in 2014 when preliminary investigations into the suspected fraud indicated that there was "an issue with certain claims".

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