Benefit inspectors' firm spied on insurance claimants
Pair fined for snooping on insurance claimants while working for civil service
Two Social Security Agency (SSA) benefit fraud investigators have been fined £750 each for running a private detective agency while working as civil servants.
Brian McManus (50), of Green Road in east Belfast, and Elaine Copes (43), of Ebor Street in south Belfast, pleaded guilty to a charge of wilful misconduct in public office by setting up Comac Investigation Services (CIS), which "undermined public trust and confidence in the SSA".
Belfast Crown Court heard the offences were committed between April 2007 and August 2008.
At an arraignment hearing in April, the pair denied a separate charge of misconduct in public office, conspiracy to pervert the court of justice and fraud by false representation. Following their guilty pleas yesterday to a new fourth charge, prosecution lawyer Kate McKay asked that the three other charges be left on the books.
She told Judge Gordon Kerr QC that when offences first came to light in 2008, the defendants were working for the SSA as benefit fraud investigators. She explained that setting up CIS amounted to wilful misconduct in public office as the pair were civil servants and this created a "conflict of interest".
The prosecutor added that when they started the job, they signed documents saying they would avoid such issues.
The court heard that CIS carried out work on behalf of Quinn Direct Insurance Services, investigating claims. "They would go out and video people who made claims to show that they were able to do things they said they couldn't do as a result of an accident," explained Ms McKay.
The prosecutor added that the defendants carried out this work and charged Quinn Direct a fee while employed by the SSA.
The court was told that neither defendant had a previous criminal record, and defence barrister Jon Paul Shields said Copes had worked for the SSA since 1993 and was a trained investigator.
He said that last year she drew down £6,000 from the company's profits of £20,000, but he added that because more recent months had been "difficult trading period for the company", the defendant was now in receipt of £200-a-month in tax credits.
Taylor Campbell, for McManus, said the married father-of-two was also financially struggling after media reports of his committal proceedings earlier this year, which had a negative effect on CIS's business.
The defence barrister added McManus was living off his wife's £25,000 a year salary along with some of his own savings, which the lawyer claimed would run out in January next year.
Judge Gordon Kerr QC said the case was "one of the strangest" instances of misconduct in a public office that he had come across in his time in the job.
He added Copes and McManus had set up their private investigators firm out of greed to earn more money "over and above their annual incomes as SSA benefit fraud investigators".
The judge fined each of the defendants £750 and gave them six months to pay up.