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5 Sep 2013

Benefit thief: I'm not really guilty

A high-living fraudster who claimed £13,000 in housing benefit to live in swanky canal-side apartments has avoided jail. (h/t: a reader)

Frozen yoghurt seller Pauline Coffey, 49, led a lavish lifestyle by keeping benefits she should have been paying to her landlord - who was also her friend - Trafford Magistrates Court heard.

Between 2007-11, Coffey lived at three different apartments in the luxury Budeberg development on Woodfield Road, Altrincham - designed by internationally-renowned architect Lord Norman Foster.

Huge sums in housing benefit passed from Trafford council into Coffey's bank account - money which she should have passed to Philip Astley, her landlord who Trafford claim she was in a relationship with, for rent.

She must now pay back all the money, after pleading guilty to dishonestly obtaining housing benefit worth £13,334.77.

The court heard how Coffey - who runs Chillberries frozen yoghurt shop in Knutsford - was caught by police officers working as part of Operation Bank, which monitors unusual transactions by suspected fraudsters.

Magistrates sentenced her to eight weeks in jail, suspended for 12 months, as well as 200 hours of unpaid work.

She must also pay £1279.20 costs, bringing her total bill to £14,613.97, to be repaid in monthly £100 instalments.

Coun Sean Anstee said “This case once again reinforces the council’s commitment to crack down on perpetrators of benefit fraud.

"We will not stand by and allow them to fraudulently claim money which should be going to local people eligible to claim the benefit.”

But Coffey said she had only pleaded guilty on legal advice – and denied she was in a relationship with Mr Astley, saying he was just her friend:
I've been suffering from depression and am testifying in a court case next week because I was sexually abused when younger. I paid my rent in cash and Philip told the council that in interview, but we had no proof. I only claimed housing benefit for the periods when I couldn't work due to depression. My solicitor said I could go to prison if I pleaded guilty. I wish I hadn't taken his advice. I'm now in danger of losing my business, something I worked so hard to build up.
Presumably he declared the rental income to HMRC then?

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