Public servants are investigated over €1.3m social welfare fraud
THREE Social Welfare public servants "colluded" with third parties to defraud the taxpayer of €1.3m, a Dail committee was told.
Two cases are currently under Garda investigation, accounting officers at Social Protection Minister Joan Burton's department told the Public Accounts Committee (PAC).
One staff member, working in the community welfare division, allegedly colluded with an undisclosed number of outside parties over a six-year period between 2006 and 2012 to scam the taxpayer of between €1m and €1.1m.
Community welfare officers are located in the community to offer short term emergency assistance to those in need. They have huge discretionary powers in the distribution of financial assistance to welfare recipients.
It has been confirmed that the fraudulent payments were made by the staff member, by way of discretionary claims of up to €3,500 a week, which went undetected for six years.
The matters only came to light following a random audit search of a sample of payments by department officials, the committee heard.
It emerged that that the staff member involved in the fraud of over €1m is currently on suspension with pay while the Garda investigation is carried out.
Another staff member involved in the alleged defrauding of about €100,000 is also on suspension. Both of these cases are under Garda investigation and not a cent of the money has been paid back to date.
A third staff member who defrauded another €100,000 was fired last year, but the case is not under Garda investigation, the committee heard.
In this third case, the committee heard that a payment plan to recoup some of the lost money has been set up.
The revelations came to light during questioning of Niamh O'Donoghue, Secretary General of the Department by Fine Gael Limerick TD and PAC vice chairman Kieran O'Donnell.
He said the revelations were "truly shocking" and asked to know how it went unnoticed for so long.
"The community welfare officer system is a vital service for those who find themselves in emergencies. It is shocking that this was allowed happen. As PAC members, we have a job of work to do, to follow the money, and to ensure this never happens again," he told the Irish Independent.
"Over €1 million over a six year period, is almost €170,000 a year or three or four thousand a week and it went on for six years. Incredible," he added.
It was confirmed that two employees are currently under suspension while another was dismissed "during the course of 2013."
Ms O'Donoghue said the misappropriation cases were "atypical" and most certainly not the norm.
She told Mr O'Donnell that gardai were informed last December and they are investigating the claims.
She said she was restricted in what she could say given the two Garda investigations under way. In a statement to the Irish Independent, a spokesman for Ms Burton said the case is currently under investigation by An Garda Síochána and the Department of Social Protection cannot make any comment at this stage.
"It should be noted that the case under investigation related to the period 2006–2012, and came to light after the department assumed responsibility for the area in question in 2012," the spokesman added.
The committee earlier heard from the Comptroller and Auditor General that debt outstanding due to overpayments stood at €375m, while overpayments of €97m were recorded in 2012.
Irregular payments arise where recipients are paid amounts "to which they are not entitled" or which "exceed their entitlements", caused by administrative error or fraud. The department said it has developed a new anti-fraud policy for 2014-2018.