By Isabel Hayes and Sonya McLean
A school cleaner who stole over €100,000 in social welfare fraud over a 17-year period by pretending to be her sister has avoided a jail term.
Carol Clarke, a 57-year-old mother of five, used the money to support her family and to help pay off one of her son's drug debts, Dublin Circuit Criminal Court heard at a previous sentence hearing last May.
Clarke, with an address in Dunard Drive, Navan Road, Dublin, pleaded guilty to two counts of stealing from the Department of Social Welfare at Phibsborough post office between February 1994 and July 2011. The total amount stolen was €104,431.
Judge Karen O'Connor sentenced Clarke to two years in prison which she suspended in full.
She said she had taken into account the “heartbreak and tragedy” Clarke had suffered, as one son was shot dead and a second had killed himself. She noted that the woman was now caring full-time for her ill daughter.
Judge O'Connor wished Clarke “every good fortune” and commended her for looking after her daughter and grandchildren. She said she would not ask Clarke to compensate the State, because she said in her particular circumstances “it would be unduly onerous” considering her limited financial means.
Inspector Thomas Lynch told Pieter Le Vert BL, prosecuting, that gardaí discovered in 2012 that social welfare was being claimed on behalf of Bernadette Darcy, Clarke's sister. Ms Darcy told gardaí she had no idea that the social welfare was being claimed under her name.
Clarke was arrested shortly afterwards. She initially denied the claims, but after carrying out a number of handwriting tests and fingerprint testing, she eventually admitted to the offence. Staff at Phibsborough post office also identified her as the culprit.
She has one previous conviction for handling stolen property in 1999.
Tara Burns SC, defending, said Clarke had a difficult family background. Her husband died of Huntington's Disease in 2013. Of her five children, a son and daughter also suffer from the condition.
Her son is cared for in hospital while Clarke cares for her sick daughter and her daughter's two young children in the family home. She is effectively the sole carer of those children, Ms Burns said.
The court heard another son took his own life at the age of 25 after running up drug debts, while her younger son, Glen Clarke, was killed in a shooting incident in Dublin last December.
Ms Burns said her client was extremely remorseful and was paying back the debt she owed to the department in €50 instalments. She handed up a number of references to court, including Clarke's employer at St Paul's CBS, who described her as dedicated and hard-working.
Defence counsel urged Judge O'Connor at the sentence hearing in May to consider not imposing a custodial sentence, saying she cared for her grandchildren, who wee aged four and six, “as a mother would”.
Judge O'Connor noted, at that hearing that the offence was “premeditated” and of some duration.