A DRIMOLEAGUE pensioner has been remanded in custody for one month to allow a medical report to be prepared after she pleaded guilty to 21 counts of theft and fraud where she stole €70,000 from the HSE in an elaborate scheme involving falsifying drug payment scheme claims.
Christine Crowley (72) pleaded guilty last month to the 21 sample counts from a total of 174 charges which followed a five-year investigation by gardaí into the falsification of claims under the Drug Payment Scheme/Long Term Illness Scheme operated by the HSE.
Last week at Cork Circuit Criminal Court, Det Garda Liz O’Sullivan told how gardaí began investigating Crowley from Main Street, Drimoleague in July 2009, following a complaint from the HSE after its inspectors had carried out an audit of two pharmacies that she owned in Dunmanway.
HSE inspectors found discrepancies at both her pharmacies, Crowley’s Pharmacy and Kerr’s Pharmacy, between the quantity of prescription medicines that had been dispensed and the quantity of medicines that Crowley had claimed for under the Drug Payment Scheme.
Gardaí began an investigation and searched the two pharmacies under warrant and seized a large amount of documentation as well as copies of computer records and found the HSE had re-imbursed Crowley for fictitious medicines that had never been dispensed to patients.
The amount of documentation seized by gardaí covering the investigation period from 2004 to 2009 was so enormous that gardaí took an operational decision to carry out a detailed investigation on the six-month period from January to June 2009, said Det Garda O’Sullivan.
They found that Crowley had made false claims in respect of 422 patients and they took witness from 83 patients and when they examined claims in respect of a sample of three of these 83 witnesses, they found that similar fraudulent claims were made between 2004 and 2008.
Crowley had instructed three staff members to implement the fraud which was highly sophisticated and over the six months snapshot period that gardaí examined, she had obtained €70,916 in fraudulent claims which she forged, as well as other legitimate payments, said Det Garda O’Sullivan.
‘In reality, the medicines were never prescribed by any medical practitioner, were never dispensed by the pharmacist, and were never received by the patient, even though claims were made for them by the pharmacist and she was paid for them by the HSE,’ she said.
The HSE recouped the €70,916 from Crowley by stopping drug scheme payments to her for 12 months, during which time she continued to dispense medicines on the scheme but at her own expense, and other monies were the subject of civil litigation between the HSE and Crowley.
Det Garda O’Sullivan said that Crowley did not co-operate with gardaí when she was arrested in June 2012 but instead exercised her right to silence during interview, replying ‘no comment’ to all questions put to her.
She confirmed that Crowley had no previous convictions and she agreed with defence counsel, Jim O’Mahony SC, that Crowley had learnt a salutary lesson and was unlikely to ever come before the courts on such a matter again.
Mr O’Mahony BL said that his client had indicated earlier this year that she was going to plead guilty and by doing so, she had saved the State the expense of a complex trial which would have run for five weeks and involved calling 174 witnesses.
He pointed out that she and her husband, a retired vet, John Crowley, had used their pension plans to keep both pharmacies open and staff employed for the year plus long periods where the HSE had stopped all drug scheme payments, and they were now without any pensions.
Crowley was no longer involved in running the two pharmacies which are now operated by one of her daughters, and she was currently the subject of disciplinary proceedings by the Irish Pharmacy Union which would ensure that she would never work as a pharmacist again.
‘This matter has devastated her life – the stress was such that she suffered a burst ulcer in 2010 and had to go for surgery and ended up spending three weeks in the Bons Secours while she also now suffers from a shake in her head and her hands,’ said Mr O’Mahony.
Crowley’s husband was aged 74 and was in poor health having undergone an unsuccessful hip operation which severely limited his mobility and the defendant was now his main carer at their home over a chemist shop owned by another daughter in Drimoleague, he added.
Mr O’Mahony said that his client had ‘no yachts, no huge tracts of land’ as a result of the deception and fraud, and she had no criminal record apart from this, but she now had to live with the loss of her good name as the case had been well publicised in West Cork.
‘The case was on the front page of The Southern Star and there was scarcely a week went by when it wasn’t mentioned in The Southern Star, and she has now to live with that publicity in the local community,’ said Mr O’Mahony.
‘Otherwise she is a very decent lady and since her conviction last month when she pleaded guilty, she has received hundreds of cards from people she has dealt with over the years wishing her well,’ said Mr O’Mahony before asking Judge Ó Donnabhain not to impose a prison sentence.
However, Judge Ó Donnabhain noted that Crowley had instructed three of her staff to participate in the fraud which was a seriously aggravating factor as they had ended up before the courts on charges as a result of her instruction, and that put her crime on a different plane.
‘I have never come across a case of deception that was so well organised that people working in the business were forced to participate in the deceit and were convicted in a court as a result – that too indicates a level of egregious criminality.
‘Getting staff involved in this brings it to an entirely different level to my mind – this is not some casual deceit,’ said Judge Ó Donnabhain, before acknowledging that Crowley had spared the State a complicated lengthy trial with her guilty plea and that was a mitigating factor in her favour.
He agreed to an application by Mr O’Mahony to adjourn the matter to allow him obtain a medical report on Crowley and remanded her in custody for sentence on April 4th but warned no one should assume that by remanding her in custody now he wasn’t going to impose a jail term on that date.
At a previous hearing of Cork Circuit Criminal Court in February 2016, three staff members who worked for Crowley at her pharmacies in Dunmanway were charged with deception offences relating to the same drug payment scheme fraud.
Marguerite Murray (46) from Caher, Ballineen, Tracey Mohan (40) from Prospect Lawn, Dunmanway and Aisling Broderick (33) fromr Derryclough, Drinagh all pleaded guilty to theft and fraud offences and were given the Probation Act after the court heard that they did not benefit from the deception.