By Paul Gregoire and Ugur Nedim
Rebecca Assie told two western Sydney women how they could commit welfare fraud. In light of that advice, Sahar El Kaddour applied to receive a Centrelink carer payment and allowance claiming that she looked after Raghda El Moubayed.
The deal was Ms El Kaddour would give Ms El Moubayed $250 a fortnight for her part in the scam. Both women paid Ms Assie a one-off fee for her assistance in setting it up. But, El Kaddour was only granted the allowance, so she couldn’t afford to pay her co-conspirator.
In May 2015, as the hostilities grew between the two women, Assie’s long-term welfare fraud scheme came unstuck. Between February 2013 and September 2015, Assie conspired with her late husband, Jamal Elali, to help “customers” fraudulently obtain over $137,000 in welfare payments.
The “Centrelink witch” – as Assie was known – schooled her clients in how to get doctors that “didn’t ask questions” to fill out social security forms that confirmed those they were supposedly caring for suffered from non-existent medical conditions.
The Australian Federal Police (AFP) raided the couple’s Padstow home in 2013 and found 25 bundles of $50 notes totalling $244,950 in a locked safe in their bedroom floor. However, at the time, the pair had supposedly been surviving on welfare payments since 1990.
On 27 March this year, Ms Assie pleaded guilty to one social security fraud charge, as well as one count of dealing with the proceeds of crime. The 62-year-old is currently on bail and will be appearing in the Downing Centre District Court for sentencing in July.
Social security offences
The fraud charge Assie admitted to committing was one count of conspiring to dishonestly cause a loss to a third person, contrary to section 135.4(5) of the Criminal Code Act 1995 (Cth). This offence only applies if the third person is a Commonwealth entity, which in this case is Centrelink.
Ms Assie is liable to up to 10 years behind bars for committing this federal offence.
There are two other welfare fraud offences that are commonly prosecuted that also carry a maximum of 10 years. Section 134.1 of the Criminal Code contains the offence of obtaining property by deception, while section 134.2 relates to obtaining a financial advantage by deception.
However, the most commonly prosecuted Centrelink offence is obtaining a financial advantage from a Commonwealth entity, when the offender knows or believes that they’re not entitled to the advantage. This offence is contained in section 135.2 of the Criminal Code.
A change in circumstance
Over the last decade, there has been some contention around the 135.2 offence in regard to whether it can be committed via an omission: a failure on the part of a recipient to notify Centrelink about a change of circumstance, which results in them receiving illegitimate payments.
In the High Court of Australia 2011 case DPP versus Poniatowska it was found that since there was no law requiring an individual to inform the department about such a change, failure to do so could hardly constitute a criminal offence.
The government sought to pre-empt this decision by introducing a law that made this act an crime in April 2011. And it backdated the new law to apply to cases going back as far as March 2000. But, in 2013’s DPP versus Keating, the High Court ruled the retrospectivity of this law was invalid.
As Wollongong University law lecturer Dr Scarlett Wilcock explained in the Conversation, the result of these cases combined was that the Department of Human Services (DHS) was prevented from prosecuting omissions when the change of circumstance was not registered prior to August 2011.
The robo-debt scandal
Of course, over recent years, Centrelink has been condemned nationally for its bungled attempt to crackdown on social security fraudsters. In mid-2016, the DHS altered its routine cross-referencing of Centrelink data with that of the ATO to determine overpayments, so that it became automated.
This updating of the system resulted in thousands of Australians being wrongly accused of owing the department money, which saw debt collectors chasing down people for overclaiming on welfare payments that never happened.
A Senate committee inquiry into the Centrelink debt recovery system found a lack of procedural fairness at every step from legislating the program to call centre communications with the public. Indeed, the department was even aware it was sending letters to people who didn’t have debts.
Autism Awareness Australia chief executive Nicole Rogerson told the Guardian in January 2017 that her then 21-year-old son Jack received a call from a debt collector informing him of a $3,000 debt. However, the young man, who has autism, didn’t owe Centrelink anything.
And in February this year, Triple J’s Hack reported that 2,030 people have died following receiving a Centrelink debt notice. Of these, 663 were classified as vulnerable people, due to their complex needs, while 429 were under the age of 35. A department spokesperson denied any link.
The school of fraud
Meanwhile, soon-to-be sentenced Rebecca Assie’s “star pupil”, Joulan Obeid, also fell under the scrutiny of law enforcement. Ms Obeid swindled $66,000 in Centrelink payments between 2013 to 2015 by claiming her daughter had ADHD and needed to be cared for.
Two years into the scam, Centrelink decided to review Obeid’s case and she, yet again, called on the Centrelink witch for help. Ms Assie told Obeid over the monitored phone line that further assistance would cost her “one kilo and a half of grapes”, which was code for $1,500.
Ms Assie subsequently instructed Obeid on what she should say to a doctor. Although, the first GP knocked her back and the second failed to fill out the form correctly, so Assie simply liquid papered over the inconvenient facts on the document, assuring Obeid it would all be OK.
However, it was the AFP listening in to their calls. And in late 2015, Obeid’s payments were cut off. She was subsequently arrested and charged with obtaining a financial advantage by deception. And she’s now serving 2 years and 2 months prison time, which commenced last September.