A man who fraudulently claimed the pensions of his dead parents for 33 years was caught out when his father became eligible for the centenary bounty cheque for reaching the age of a hundred, a court has heard.
Investigating gardaí indicated Donald (Don) O’Callaghan of Churchfield Green, Cork city conducted the largest and longest running known case of welfare fraud in the history of the State.
The 58-year-old claimed the pensions of his dead parents, Donald and Eileen, from 1987-2020, defrauding the State of in excess of €500,000.
Detective Garda Michael Nagle, who is based at the Department of Social Protection, told Cork Circuit Criminal Court the Garda investigation also led to the revelation that Donald O’Callaghan Snr, the father of the defendant, had claimed a pension for his dead wife from 1979 until his own death in 1987.
Upon the death of Donald O’Callaghan Snr in 1987, Don started claiming the State pension for both his father and mother.
Garda Nagle said the offences emerged in July 2020 when a social welfare inspector at Hanover Street, Cork received notification of a pensioner in the county, Donald O’Callaghan, who was due to reach 100-years-old.
“This would result in the issuing of a congratulatory letter from the President as well as a cheque for €2,540,” the court heard.
The social welfare inspector’s role was to verify the pensioners details and to confirm their acceptance of the centenarian bounty, prior to it being issued.
Donald O’ Callaghan Snr was listed as residing at 4 Churchfield Green, Churchfield, Cork with his wife Eileen O’ Callaghan and their son Don O’ Callaghan,” Det Gda Nagle said.
He added the inspector would ordinarily call to the home of the pensioner to complete a questionnaire, but these visits were not taking place due to pandemic restrictions. The information was instead being verified by phone and post.
Both pensioners were in receipt of a State pension, being paid to Donald O’ Callaghan with Eileen O’ Callaghan included on the same pension as opposed to two separate claims. The pension was being collected weekly at the GPO in Cork.
There was a contact number listed for the defendant, Don O’ Callaghan and the inspector contacted him to discuss the centenarian bounty for his father. The inspector spoke with Don, who confirmed he resided at the address with his father and mother and that his father was willing to accept the President’s payment.
The social welfare inspector then tried to verify Donald O’ Callaghan’s details as routine, contacting the public health nurse who had no record of Donald O’ Callaghan.
Unable to make contact with anybody else who could verify the information, in August 2020, the inspector spoke with Det Gda Nagle about the matter.
In a bid to verify that Donald O’ Callaghan was alive, Det Gda Nagle contacted the public health nurse, home help services, local GP’s and all of the main hospitals in the city. Donald O’ Callaghan or Eileen O’ Callaghan were not known to any of them.
In addition, no death certs could be located, and Det Gda Nagle started to carry out surveillance of the O’Callaghan home on the northside of the city.
“I eventually began to physically check various cemeteries over a number of weeks. In September 2020, I located the grave of Eileen O’ Callaghan at Tory Top Road cemetery and the following week I located the grave of Donald O’ Callaghan in Douglas cemetery.
“Donald O’ Callaghan died 34 years ago in November 1987, aged 68, and his wife Eileen O’Callaghan died 43 years ago in March 1979, aged 57.”
Det Gda Nagle obtained CCTV footage of three collections of the pension at GPO in Cork in August and September 2020, all of which were collected by a man whom he believed to be Don O’Callaghan.
On October 9th, 2020 he conducted a surveillance operation at the post office, arresting Don O’Callaghan after he collected the fortnightly pension payment of €961.60 in cash.
Mr O’ Callaghan made a full admission in relation to the collection of his parents’ pensions from 1987-2020. Garda located €9,800 in cash, suspected to be proceeds from the pension payments at O’Callaghan’s home. They also seized the money he collected on the day of his arrest.
Det Gda Nagle also obtained the original pension file from 1986.
“The evidence suggests that the pension was originally applied for by Donald O’ Callaghan, and it would appear that it was he who included his wife on the application, resulting in a double payment, although she had died seven years previously at that time.
“Following the death of his father in 1987, Don O’ Callaghan was 24-years-old and noticed the pension book in the house. He attempted to collect it the following week and when successful, he continued this practice for over three decades.
“The fraud was continued throughout the years with the completion of various documents, five of which relate to charges before the court.”
In 1990, Don O’ Callaghan submitted a fuel allowance application to the department, listing the occupants of the address as himself and both his parents.
Det Gda Nagle said the department conducted postal checks on the pension claims over the years, with three continued eligibility certificates sent to Donald O’ Callaghan at 4 Churchfield Green.
“There was one cert sent to 4 Churchfield Green in 1996, one in 2013 and one in 2017. These certificates were all returned completed and signed, appearing to have been submitted by Donald O’ Callaghan but were, in fact, completed and signed by the defendant.
“These declarations allowed the pension to remain in payment as they declared that there has been no change in the circumstances of Donald O’ Callaghan,” Det Gda Nagle said,
In 2009 an authority to appoint an agent form was completed by the defendant with his father’s information.
In this form, Don O’Callaghan was nominated as an agent to collect the pension payment on behalf of his father, giving the reason that Donald O’ Callaghan was no longer able to walk to the post office to collect the payment.
In June 2014, an application form for a public services card was sent to Donald O’ Callaghan at his address. The public services card process could for an initial period, be completed by post without the requirement to attend in person, for example in the case of an elderly individual, such as Donald O’ Callaghan.
This form was returned completed with Donald O’ Callaghan’s information, as though completed and signed by him.
A photograph was returned with the form, as required for inclusion on the card. The department deemed that the quality of the photograph was too poor to use on the public services card and Det Gda Nagle said they sent a letter to Donald O’ Callaghan’s address requesting a better-quality photograph of him.
Det Gda Nagle said another photograph was subsequently sent to the department for inclusion on the card.
‘No reason to suspect anything untoward’
“It transpires that this photograph was taken by Don O’ Callaghan of an elderly man whom he knew, who was of a similar age to what his father Donald O’ Callaghan would have been. He had no other suitable photograph of his father and took the photograph of this male in order to ensure that the fraud continued.
“With nothing to compare it to, and no reason to suspect anything untoward, this photograph was accepted by the department and in February 2015, a public services card was issued to Donald O’ Callaghan, by post, bearing the photograph of this unknown elderly male.
“This Public services card was located during the search of Don O’ Callaghan’s home,” Det Gda Nagle said.
Financially, the court heard Don O Callaghan was himself in receipt of jobseekers allowance for the past three decades. Combined with the pension payments of his parents, at the time that this was detected, he would have been receiving close to €700 per week on average.
He appeared to have a good quality of living and had travelled abroad on a number of occasions.
Det Gda Nagle said O’Calllaghan also has one son who resides in Thailand with his Thai mother. O’ Callaghan was regularly sending payments by money transfer to his child’s mother, for support of his child, he added.
In the 33 years during which the fraud was committed, there were almost 1,700 separate collections of the pension payment made by Don O’ Callaghan, totalling €527,000.
Mr O’Callaghan pleaded guilty to 73 sample counts of social welfare fraud, dating back over three decades. Sixty-eight counts relate to theft while five refer to false documentation in support of the fraudulent claims.
All of the theft offences occurred at Cork GPO on Oliver Plunkett Street with the forgery offences taking place at the office of the Department of Social Protection on Hanover Street, Cork.
Defence barrister, Ray Boland SC, claimed his client had a chronic gambling addiction for which he was seeking treatment.
He pleaded for leniency in the case given the guilty plea, his client’s co-operation with gardaí and his lack of previous convictions.
Judge Helen Boyle adjourned the case until Wednesday morning to consider her position on sentencing.