Croydon mother used charity as front for £48k benefit fraud
A WOMAN who swindled nearly £50,000 of benefits while sending money back to her home country of Nigeria has been jailed.
Clarissa Ihenacho, 55, "set out to defraud" the public purse in a "sophisticated" four-year scam which saw her plough the fraudulent funds into paying off a mortgage at taxpayers' expense.
The mother-of-five created bogus documents to cheat £48,193-worth of housing and council tax benefits, despite owning stakes in £850,000 worth of property.
Sentencing the fraudster at Croydon Crown Court on Friday, Judge Andrew Campbell-Tiech said: "The defendant set out to defraud the state and she did it in rather an intelligent and sophisticated way, and then when she was caught, rather than say sorry, she has told lie, after lie, after lie."
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The scam centred on two properties: one in Croydon that she part-owned under matrimonial rights with her husband, and the other in Tooting, which she had a mortgage on.
However, she denied owning any property in the UK to Croydon Council on benefit application forms, falsely claiming both properties were owned by Family Education Helpline UK (FEH) – a charity to which she was a signatory of the accounts.
The false claim made it appear she was merely a tenant at the Pemdevon Road home in Croydon, and FEH the landlord, allowing her to claim housing and council tax benefit.
Meanwhile she had a mortgage on a property in Links Road, Tooting, from which she received rental income after it was converted into two flats. Some of the benefits claimed during the four-year and nine-month scam between 2005 and 2009 were used to pay this mortgage.
The court was told even upon having her benefits suspended after the alarm was raised in 2009, Ihenacho appealed against the suspension, claiming she was still entitled to them.
Errol Reid, defending, pleaded with the judge to show "mercy" and give a non-custodial, suspended sentence. However, she was sentenced to a year behind bars after being found guilty by jury on eight counts of fraud following a week-long trial.
Judge Campbell-Tiech added: "In support of these benefits she manufactured herself false documents to show quite wrongly that she was paying rent for a house she actually owned.
"It makes it difficult to listen to a plea for mercy, and that this is a woman who has fallen from grace simply by happenstance."
Emotional scenes followed with Ihenacho breaking down in the dock while her sons and daughter cried in the public gallery.
As she was taken to the cells she could be heard screaming: "It's fabrication. I'm not the one who filled in the forms."
Doubts were also raised in court over Ihenacho's claims of gaining a doctorate degree from Sorbonne University, Paris, in education.
Only evidence of having obtained a diploma from the university could be found, Francesca Levett, prosecuting, said.
Ihenacho had lived in France after fleeing Nigeria when she was 12 because of civil war there, before moving to England.
Speaking of the fraud, Mrs Levett added: "It was done with one aim in mind, which was to deceive and acquire huge sums of money. This has also been done to create assets one would not normally be able to maintain."
Ihenacho's son Amechi also addressed the court in an emotional plea with the judge, saying his mother was "distraught," that "her health has deteriorated" and that a sentence on her "will be a sentence on the whole family who are dependent on her".
He said she has been involved in charity work which has involved enhancing the education of scores of local children of African descent.