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€48,000 welfare fraud student caught using false identity

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Facial recognition software, used by the Department of Social Protection to clamp down on welfare fraud, identified an NUIG student who was claiming social welfare under a false name over a five-year period.

A blue jacket, worn by the final year engineering student while fraudulently claiming social welfare at two city Post Offices, also helped seal the fate of Aboubakar Youssouf (36), with addresses at 4 Clifden House Apartments, Newcastle, and Carraig Laith, Newcastle.

Youssouf pleaded guilty before Galway Circuit Criminal Court last March to 22 sample counts of stealing an estimated €47,821 from the Department of Social Protection on dates between October, 2011 and January, 2015.

The court was told he was fraudulently claiming €259 per week under a false identity and that no money had been returned to the State.

Detective Julie McCormack of the Special Investigations Unit, based in Dublin, gave evidence at the sentence hearing last week that on February 26 last year the Identity Control Section at the Department of Social Protection checked their database, using facial recognition software, and discovered the accused was using his own identity and a similar, fraudulent identity to claim social welfare payments between October, 2011 and January, 2015.

The accused, she said, had used his false identity to register for asylum in Ireland in 2005 and he claimed Job Seeker’s Allowance and Rent Allowance from October, 2011 to January of last year, receiving €259 per week.

Det McCormack said Aboubakar was now a French national and was resident in Ireland as an EU citizen.

He was arrested on May 8 last year in relation to the welfare fraud.

He told Gardai he came from Sudan originally and registered for asylum in France in 2003 under his real name.

He travelled to Ireland in 2005, while still waiting for asylum in France, and registered for asylum here under the false identity – which was a variation of his correct name and date of birth – and received direct provision here in 2005 and 2006.

He went back to France and got asylum there in 2007, becoming a French citizen and receiving a French passport. He then returned to Ireland in 2011 and used his false identity again to claim social welfare.

Judge Rory McCabe asked Det McCormack if Youssouf had come here in 2011 as a French citizen, and looked for asylum here by claiming he had come from Sudan.

She explained he was going to college here under his true identity while claiming social welfare under the false identity.

Judge McCabe asked what had happened to the accused’s Irish asylum application and was told it had not been fully finalised but he had been given Irish travel documents – under the false name – so that he could travel.

Det McCormack said Youssouf’s house was searched last May and a number of documents were seized that linked him to his true identity, including his French passport.

A false driving licence, a social welfare card, a public service card, bank accounts and all the social welfare documents which bore his false name and details, were also seized.

Det McCormack said a blue jacket was found during the search which matched a jacket Youssouf regularly wore when he went to fraudulently collect social welfare payments at Bohermore and Renmore Post Offices.  The transactions were captured on CCTV at the time.

Det McCormack said Youssouf was in his final year in mechanical engineering in NUIG and was also working in a local restaurant.

She said he was married to a Chad national, who is also an EU national and she was entitled to stay here. The couple have two children, she added.

Det McCormack said she didn’t know if the State was supporting Youssouf’s education at NUIG.

Defence barrister, Brendan Browne said the accused used the money to support his family and send money home to his sick mother.

She said Youssouf had been offered a place on the Masters Programme and if he was given an opportunity to complete his exams, his job prospects might help him make restitution to the State.

She said he was due to sit his exams next month and would take the place on the Masters Programme if his results were good.

Judge Rory McCabe said this had been a well-planned, premeditated, long-term fraud and the layers of cheating involved were evident.

The accused, he said, had systematically increased his illegal access to State payments, even while working.

The judge said the accused was fortunate his criminality was being dealt with in this jurisdiction as he had told the probation service himself that the range of penalties in his country of origin were very severe.

Judge McCabe said the appropriate sentence was three years and six months for each charge to run concurrently, but he adjourned sentence for one year, to allow the accused finish his education, to give him time to reflect on how he will pay back the money and to make preparations for his wife and children while he goes to prison.

Connacht Tribune

More than €200,000 worth of cannabis seized in East Galway

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More than €200,000 worth of cannabis was seized in during two separate search operations in East Galway on Saturday.

Gardai from the Divisional Drugs Unit conducted a search at a residence in Aughrim and seized cannabis plants with an estimated street value of €146,000 and €20,000 worth of cannabis herb which will now be sent for analysis.

Two men (both in their 30s) were arrested at the scene in connection with the investigation and are currently detained at Galway Garda station under Section 2 of the Criminal Justice (Drug Trafficking) Act, 1996.  Both men remain in custody.

A separate search was carried out at a residence in Ballinasloe yesterday afternoon and cannabis herb with an estimated street value of €35,000 was seized. Cannabis jellies and €7,510 in cash were also seized.

A man in his 40s was arrested and later released without charge and a file will be prepared for the Director of Public Prosecutions.

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Connacht Tribune

Joint move by Galway councils to Crown Square ruled out

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A senior Department of Housing official floated the idea of Galway County Council workers moving to Galway City Council’s newly-acquired Crown Square office building if a merger of the two local authorities was to proceed.

However, he was told the proposed merger of Galway’s two councils was not being pursued “at this stage”, and that it “should not be a consideration” when deliberating on the City Council’s application to the Department for a €45.5m loan approval to buy the offices in Mervue, on the eastern side of the city.

The discussion was contained in internal communications between officials in the Department of Housing and Local Government who were discussing Galway City Council’s loan sanction application. It was released to the Connacht Tribune under Freedom of Information (FOI).

Gary McGuinn, the Department’s Assistant Principal Officer for Local Government Governance and Elected Members – in a comprehensive memo about the Council’s loan application – raised the prospect of what would happen if a merger between the two councils proceeded.

“Over the years there have been merger proposals for Galway City Council and Galway County Council. These proposals ultimately never advanced but I believe that there has been incrementally closer coordination between both executives.

“Galway is now something of a holdout given that mergers have taken place in Limerick and Waterford, while the boundary issue was settled in Cork by extending it to encompass the city suburbs and outlying districts.

“Both Galway City Council and Galway County Council have office premises in Galway city centre. On a purely speculative note, one could ponder what would happen to the new City Hall building that they want to borrow to fund if there is an eventual merger?

“Possibly it would become the HQ for a ‘Galway Metropolitan District’ structure within a single ‘City and County’ type local authority. As there is no such proposal at this time though it’s probably not something that can be asked about or planned for,” Mr McGuinn said to his colleague, Tim Nuttall, an official in the Department’s Local Government Finance section.

His views were forwarded to another section within the Department of Housing last September, just before Minister Darragh O’Brien sanctioned the loan application last September.

In response, another civil servant in the Department of Housing, Áinle Ní Bhriain, said: “I can confirm there are no plans to pursue a merger of Galway City Council and Galway County Council, which was approved by Government in 2018, at this stage, and therefore should not be a consideration in relation to this loan.”

Chief Executive of Galway City Council, Brendan McGrath, confirmed two days before Christmas Eve last year, that the deal to buy the property from JJ Rhatigan was complete.

City Council workers are due to move to the new building by the end of this year.

In its loan application, the City Council said its College Road site, built 40 years ago, and refurbished and extended in the 2000s, had a number of “challenges”.

These included “limited capacity for additional headcount, lack of facilities within current infrastructure, building standard compliance and meeting our existing building climate targets for 2030”.

It pointed out to the Department that it leases two buildings in the city centre, to accommodate staff as well as City Hall, and buying Crown Square “will address the challenges outlined in the most efficient and cost-effective way and release our current City Hall, city centre site for regeneration”.

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Connacht Tribune

Hotel sector’s plea to retain lower VAT rate

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With overseas visitors down more than a quarter and increases of 300% in energy bills compared to before the pandemic, now is not the time to hike VAT rates for hospitality.

That is the plea from the chairperson of the Galway branch of the Irish Hotels Federation (IHF), John Ryan, who is urging the Government to keep the 9% VAT rate for the tourism and hospitality sectors indefinitely.

The Government delayed the introduction of a 13.5% rate until March 1 at a cost of €250 million to help the sector get back on its feet after Covid.

Minister for Public Expenditure Paschal Donohue referred to price gouging in hotels over the summer as one of the key reasons he was upping the rate.

Minister for Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media Catherine Martin last week stated that it was no secret she had sought the retention of the 9% rate in negotiations for the 2023 Budget and “will continue to seek it”.

The lobby group for small to medium business, ISME, has called for the reduced VAT rate to be brought in for the entire services sector.

The owner of the Ardilaun Hotel in Taylor’s Hill said the average price of a hotel room was €167 last year. With 4,000 rooms in Dublin booked out to accommodate refugees, the price of the remaining stock was at a premium.

“You could find a couple of examples all over the country where people were charging unfair prices and were wrong. There were a few serious spikes – maybe 1% of overall accommodation stock in Dublin did that. If I was a customer I wouldn’t pay it,” Mr Ryan said.

“But they shouldn’t penalise the entire sector because of that 1%. The 9% is the right one. We would be the same as other countries where tourism is a key industry. If we went up to 13.5%, we’d be the second highest after Denmark.

“We couldn’t absorb that. We have already contracted our foreign business for 2024/25 – we’d have to go out and tell suppliers we are putting up rates. That’s just not on.”

With almost all key tourism markets experiencing a cost-of-living crisis, the last thing the industry can cope with is a tax jump.

Of 27 EU countries, the VAT rate on accommodation is 9% or lower in 16 countries.

Tourism supports 22,000 jobs throughout Galway, generating €910 million in tourism revenues annually for the local economy.

Last year the average room occupancy levels were 69% for the West, just 1% lower than national rates. Over the same period in 2019, however, room occupancy was at 78% nationally.

This is largely due to a shortfall in overseas visitors to Ireland, with numbers still down more than 25% last year compared to 2019.

A recent survey found that hotels and guesthouses were reporting reduced levels of forward bookings compared to the same time in 2019.

Some 57% report reduced bookings from Great Britain, 48% say bookings are down from Northern Ireland, while 37% record fewer bookings from the rest of Europe. US bookings are down 41%.

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