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Jail for $95,000 welfare cheater

A FORMER Centrelink employee who defrauded the agency of more than $95,000 over an eight-year period was “not living the high life” with the money, the District Court heard yesterday.

Lynette Anne Mullins, 50, of Warwick, will spend the next six months in jail after pleading guilty to defrauding the Commonwealth and obtaining a financial advantage by deception.

The court was told Mullins - who worked for the former Department of Social Security for 13 years - put in a claim for the sole parent payment on January 7, 1999, the day after she and her husband split up.

The pair reconciled a week later, a fact which Mullins chose not to disclose to Centrelink and she continued to receive the payments totalling $95,183.11, up until her youngest child turned 16 in July 2007.

Her fraud was later detected by data matching with Australian Taxation Office records dating between 2004 and 2006, which showed her husband had listed her in tax returns as his spouse.

Mullins, who sobbed quietly in the dock throughout her court appearance while supported in the public gallery by family, paid back the entire amount three weeks ago by re-drawing on the couple's home mortgage.

The Crown Prosecutor told the court Mullins had used her knowledge of Centrelink processes to “minimise detection” of her fraud and had repeatedly failed to disclose her circumstances despite filling out regular 'review forms' and taking part in face-to-face interviews.

The grandmother and mother of three daughters worked for Social Security between 1982 and 1995.

She was first interviewed by authorities on November 29, 2007 and made full admissions.

Barrister for Mullins, high-profile Toowoomba lawyer Robbie Davies, told the court his client accepted she would serve actual prison time but submitted Mullins had suffered from depression during the years she had defrauded Centrelink - which had “clouded” her thought processes and she had made two attempts at suicide.

Mr Davies said Mullins had also felt isolated while her husband was driving trucks interstate and had spent her dishonest gains on “household bills and items” rather than luxuries or alcohol and drugs.

“She was not living some high lifestyle and saw (the fraudulent payments) as an extra injection into household funds,” he said.

Mr Davies said Mullins had the high likelihood of a stint in jail “hanging over her head for two years” since first confessing to her crimes, due to delays in bringing the matter before the courts.

He asked His Honour, Judge Irwin, to consider her early plea of guilty, remorse, age, absence of criminal history and “otherwise good character”, as well as what he claimed was the fact Mullins had “ultimately” received no financial benefit as she had paid back the money.

Judge Irwin later rejected the last argument when sentencing Mullins, also noting she did not “voluntarily desist” from claiming the payments, with the entitlement simply expiring.

He did acknowledge she had not used false identities as is often the case with welfare cheats.

He told Mullins the sentences courts passed on such offenders had to send a message of “general deterrence to the community... and that this type of behaviour will not be tolerated by them”.

He also quoted a judge in another case who said welfare cheats helped to “demonise genuinely needy recipients”.

Mullins received a head sentence of three years to be released after six months when she will be placed on a $1500 good behaviour bond for three years.

Centrelink general manager Hank Jongen said Australia's welfare system gave people who were genuinely in need “a safety net when they can't support themselves”.

“The vast majority of Centrelink customers are honest and entitled to their payments,” Mr Jongen said.

In 2007-08, 2658 Centrelink cases for fraud were prosecuted with a success rate of 98.7 per cent.

Centrelink has one of the most sophisticated electronic data-matching systems in Australia.

In 2007-08, Centrelink conducted 600,000 data-matching reviews, which resulted in customer debts in excess of $360 million and estimated fortnightly savings in excess of $33 million.

The maximum sentence for welfare fraud is 10 years in prison.



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