Almost $10m in government grants designed to go to bushfire victims and businesses struggling due to the COVID pandemic may have been handed to fraudsters.
Almost $10m in government grants designed to go to bushfire victims and businesses struggling due to the COVID pandemic may have been handed to fraudsters.

Millions in bushfire grants given to fraudsters

Almost $10 million in grants set aside for bushfire victims, drought-stricken farmers and businesses struggling with the pandemic may have been paid to fraudsters.

The staggering figure has been unveiled by the NSW government in answers to questions posed at a recent Budget Estimates hearing, with suggestions it may even be bigger.

Police have already arrested 34 people with 201 charges laid as a result of two separate strike forces set up to investigate fraud, including one targeting bikies.

The release of the figures on the eve of Good Friday has triggered an outcry from both Greens MP David Shoebridge and Opposition treasury spokesman Walt Secord, who have accused the government of mismanaging its grant schemes.

The government has revealed its most rorted scheme has been the Small Business Bushfire Support Grant scheme with 641 applications totalling more than $6.4 million paid "where there is a suspicion that fraud may have occurred".

Up to $10m in bushfire and COVID grants are being deemed as suspicious. Picture: Rohan Kelly.
Up to $10m in bushfire and COVID grants are being deemed as suspicious. Picture: Rohan Kelly.

Another $1.9 million paid out under the Small Business COVID-19 Support Grant program has been deemed suspicious, as has $757,802 given to 27 applicants within the Small Business Bushfire Recovery Grant scheme.

The Volunteer Fire Fighter Payment program was also not immune to fraud, with the government revealing 86 applications totalling $411,940 had been deemed suspicious.

More than $250,000 was also paid to 86 potentially fraudulent applicants under the Small Business COVID Recovery Grant while the Export Assistance Grant - a program designed to help businesses affected by COVID-19, bushfires or the drought - is also under investigation after four grants worth $33,438 were paid out to possible fraudsters.

Another two Southern Border Small Business Support Grants worth $20,000 are also being investigated.

A number of businesses suffered during the pandemic and applied for state government grants. Picture: Rohan Kelly
A number of businesses suffered during the pandemic and applied for state government grants. Picture: Rohan Kelly

Service NSW, which released the data, declared the potentially fraudulent payouts as representing "around one per cent" of the total volume of payments, "well within international benchmarks".

"The projected fraud exposure is $9.8m," it said.

Strike Force Roche was established by police last April within the Northern Region to investigate alleged fraudulent claims for bushfire disaster relief and small business grants while the State Crime Command's Criminal Groups Squad established Strike Force Fireant in August to investigate reports that members and associates of the Rebels OMCG were involved.

In December, nine people linked to the Rebels bikie gang were charged after allegedly buying porn subscriptions, car parts, clothes and gambling bets with money falsely claimed from state government bushfire grants.

 

 

The latest arrests follow eight offenders being convicted of fraud totalling $193,000.

Mr Shoebridge accused the government of failing to be upfront about the scale of fraud of its schemes.

"The final tally is likely to be far higher than the government is saying today, and I have heard credible suggestions that this is just the tip of the iceberg."

Mr Secord said the number of suspected fraud cases indicated the State government did not have proper systems in place to secure bushfire grants.

"A bikie covered in tattoos from head-to-toe rocking up and seeking bushfire grants should have sent alarm bells ringing but it clearly did not," he said.

Customer Service Minister Victor Dominello said anyone found deliberately rorting government grants would be referred to police.

"There are always lowlifes looking to take advantage of other people's misfortune," he said.

"People who are caught deliberately rorting any government grants system are criminals and we'll have no hesitation referring them to the police."

 

 

Originally published as Up to $10m in bushfire grants given to fraudsters



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