Sinn Fein councillor acquitted of benefits fraud party told to pay back £19,000
A Sinn Fein councillor on Derry and Strabane District Council has been acquitted of benefit fraud charges and the judge has said the party should consider repaying any money owed.
Colin Kelly (30), of Kildrum Gardens in Londonderry, had faced four charges of failing to declare a change in circumstances and one charge of making a false declaration in relation to claiming £19,000 in benefits between November 2010 and March 2014.
At a contested hearing at Derry Magistrates Court, defence counsel Stephen Mooney said the facts were not in dispute, but the issue was whether there was any element of dishonesty in Mr Kelly's actions.
Giving evidence on his own behalf, Mr Kelly said he had been claiming Jobseekers Allowance (JSA) since 2008.
He said he was co-opted onto Derry City Council in 2010 and received an allowance which went straight into a bank account to which he had no access.
In answer to Mr Mooney, the councillor said that he had no "card, no cheque book no access at all" to this particular account and that all his allowance went straight to Sinn Fein.
He told the court he had been re-elected to the council in 2011 and 2015 and received expenses from the party for his travel and his telephone.
The Sinn Fein councillor said that when he became aware of the situation that he might be doing something wrong he tried to rectify it, and had been paying back £85 a month since the start of this year.
He also agreed that when filling out a renewal form for his JSA in 2012 he had ticked the box asking was he receiving any expenses.
In response to questions from prosecution counsel Conor Gillespie, Mr Kelly said he had "made a mistake" in not declaring he was doing unpaid work.
He added that as he was not receiving any money personally he did not believe there had been any change in his personal circumstances.
In summing up, Mr Mooney for the Sinn Fein councillor said that 95% of the Crown case had been proved but "there has to be dishonesty".
Mr Kelly's advocate told the judge: "If your worship entertains any reasonable doubt about that the defendant is entitled to the credit for that."
The barrister said that the money "should have been declared and it would have affected his entitlement to benefits".
He said that everything "was done quite openly" and that there had been no attempt to conceal what was happening.
Deputy District Judge Brian Archer said Kelly had been in receipt of money that had not been declared. He said if the money had been paid directly to Kelly he would have convicted, but added that he had "a lurking doubt" and the prosecution had not proved their case.
Acquitting him, the judge said that in light of the fact that the money was paid to Sinn Fein, the party should consider repaying the outstanding debt.
Speaking outside the court, Mr Kelly said it had been "an honest mistake". He added: "As soon as I became aware of the situation I took steps to rectify it.
"The judge's decision today has vindicated me."
Asked about the judge's remarks about the party repaying the money, Mr Kelly said that was a matter for the party.
When contacted about the judge's view that the party should return the £19,000, a Sinn Fein spokesman said: "Sinn Fein were not in court today. Councillor Kelly was, and he was acquitted of all charges."