Two men were remanded in custody for their parts in a conspiracy to launder money that was fraudulently claimed through PUP payments during the Covid pandemic where they got away with over €180,000.
Gardaí got a recording of one phone call where one of the parties was heard speaking to the head of a Nigerian criminal organisation, known as The Chairman, in which they discussed the laundering of €1 million.
Detective Garda Eimhear Keeshan described at Cork Circuit Criminal Court how the fraud was carried out. Some members of the gang hacked information which contained the email addresses of HSE and Tusla staff. These emails were then used to send out fraudulent jury notices, telling recipients they had been called for jury service but that first they should confirm their name, date of birth, PPS number and mother’s maiden name.
HSE and Tusla staff were targeted on the assumption that they would be working through the pandemic and would not be making a Pandemic Unemployment Payment (PUP) claim. The information the criminal gang harvested from 74 replies to the bogus jury emails were used to set up 57 bank accounts in online prepaid financial services and with An Post. PUP claims were then made, with the weekly payments to come to these accounts.
Between April and December 2020 PUP payments totalling over €180,000 were paid to these fraudulently opened accounts. 61 people – in whose names these claims were made – made statements to gardaí that the claims were made and the accounts opened without their authority.
In a joint investigation by An Garda Síochána in Midleton, the Garda National Economic Crime Bureau and gardaí on secondment to the Department of Social Protection, the involvement of two men in these crimes was detected.
They were before the court for sentencing today. Judge Helen Boyle heard all of the evidence at the sentencing hearing and adjourned finalisation until November 10. The two men were remanded in custody. They are: Oluwagbewikeke Lewis of Brookdale, Midleton, County Cork; and Bashiru Aderibigbe of Ballincollig, County Cork. Lewis was the one gardaí heard on the recorded phone call talking to “The Chairman”. There was evidence of reference to another party in the gang referred to as “Ebony 3”.
Detective Garda Kieran Crowley became suspicious of the driving of a Mercedes in the Midleton area on November 6 2020. The driver Oluwagbewikeke Lewis appeared to be nervous so a drugs search was carried out. The detective found two passports in other names with the defendant’s picture in both and two bank statements in other names. The defendant’s phone was also seized.
Det. Garda Keeshan examined the phone which linked him to the co-accused. Det. Garda Trevor Conroy discovered PUP claims had been made in the names of people who would not have been entitled to claim it.
€32,000 of the money was frozen by the state. The balance of around €150,000 has not been recovered. There is evidence of some of it being laundered through accounts in Germany. Between them the two defendants are offering a total of €11,000 compensation.
Lewis was represented by defence barrister Tom Power who said the defendant raised €5,000 compensation through family and friends which would soon be available to be brought to court. He has been living in Ireland for five years. He has two children.
“He attends his local church and instructs children in how to use DJ equipment and that kind of thing. He became embroiled in this, not as a ringleader.
“This is not a charge that comes up that often – conspiracy in relation to money-laundering. It would have taken a significant amount of garda and civilian time to investigate. Huge amounts of time have been saved for the state by the pleas of guilty,” Mr Power BL said.
Sinéad Behan BL represented father of five Bashiru Aderibigbe, who brought €6,000 compensation to court. He works as a taxi driver. Ms Behan suggested he had a lesser involvement in the organisation of this crime.
“The signed plea of guilty is the standout mitigating factor saving on time and costs in preparation of a book of evidence. The defendant has no previous convictions.
“He was granted asylum in 2005, coming here from Nigeria. He has contributed to society. Covid came, temptation arose, he succumbed. And he was in difficulty with his income from taxi-driving. He could have skipped the country but he stood his ground and abided by his bail conditions. He is involved with his local church,” Ms Behan BL said.
Prosecution barrister Imelda Kelly said the underlying offence in this case is conspiracy to commit money-laundering in respect of both parties, for which a maximum sentence of 14 years applies.