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6 May 2016

More convictions under Operation Bronze

A housing officer who took a £2,000 backhander every time she processed a fake homelessness claim for illegal immigrants as part of a £2.4million council scam has been jailed.

Trudy Ali-Balogun, 55, of Stratford, east London, abused her role as a £25,000 a year housing officer at Southwark Council to help process 24 bogus homelessness claims.

She was paid a £2,000 bribe for each application she approved and used the money to treat herself to holidays around the world, Inner London Crown Court heard.

Ali-Balogun approved false birth certificates for children who never existed, as well as made-up wage slips, bank statements and fake foreign passports.

She was jailed for five years while fraudsters Biayo Awotiwon, 47, and Adeyemi Oyedele, 48, were given five months each. Kudiartu Falana, 60, was handed a five month jail sentence suspended for 12 months and ordered to complete 200 hours of community service. Joseph Olaiya, 53, was sentenced to six months suspended for 12 months and ordered to complete 200 hours of community service.

See a pattern here?

Their trial was part of the wider investigation known as Operation Bronze which has been running since 2011 and has so far yielded more than 30 convictions.

Ibrahim Bundu, a former homeless housing case worker, was previously jailed at Woolwich Crown Court for processing false homeless housing applications in return for backhanders. He is currently serving a six year sentence after failing to pay back the £100,000 ordered by the courts.

Ali-Balogun, who studied criminology at university, was processing bogus applications while working alongside Bundu from November 2003 until her suspension in April 2005. Many of the applicants she helped within the Nigerian community were in the country illegally. Ali-Balogun also processed false birth certificates for children to help the fraudsters jump the housing queue.

Michael Goodwin, prosecuting, explained that the fraud cost the council about £2.4million and left genuine homeless people without a roof above their heads: ‘She sought to exploit and capitalise in the weaknesses and procedures which were clearly in place at the time. Her misconduct represents an abuse of trust placed in her by the local authority.’

Mr Goodwin explained that the case worker was paid at least £20,000 in backhanders and used the bungs to fund trips abroad: ‘Part of her function and responsibility was to protect the public purse by ensuring only those in need of homeless housing were granted it. She acted for financial reward and that would have been paid to her directly by applicants or by third party fixers who were working in the community.’

The prosecutor explained that the offences took place when there was a significant shortage of housing available, something which remains the case. Taxpayers' money was being used to subsidise housing for fraudsters who claimed to be homeless despite owning other properties.

Ali-Balogun was said to have been responsible for 24 applications which she knew contained forged signatures as part of the ‘sophisticated’ arrangement. ‘Only she could have known that it was not being signed as it should have been,’ said Mr Goodwin.

Bogus National Insurance numbers belonging to genuine people were also used along with ‘fake Home Office vignettes’ granting indefinite leave to remain in the UK. In some cases the Home Office had no records of the applicants ever existing in the country.

Mr Goodwin said at least 20 properties were occupied by tenants who were not entitled to them.

Some of the defendants even used ‘bogus’ birth certificates in order to pretend they had children which would speed up their applications, among other benefits. ‘If they had two or three children they were entitled to bigger properties which the council had to find from their waiting list.’

Four applicants - including Falana - ended up buying the properties at a reduced price as a result of their deception using the Government’s ‘Right To Buy’ scheme. These properties are now likely to be subject to county court proceedings to determine whether they should be handed back.

Oyedele a former assistant to the Nigerian High Commissioner, is refusing to leave his Bermondsey flat, the court heard.

Falana obtained a four bedroom property in central London after previously being rejected for homeless housing due to her children not having indefinite leave to remain in the UK. She bought it in 2007 at a £60,000 discount under the Right to Buy scheme.

Olaiya used three ‘bogus’ children to help further his claim along with a fake passport when he was unlawfully in the country after previously been deported.

Oyedele was found to have ‘considerable funds’ in his bank account and did not have indefinite leave to remain in the UK and no evidence was ever found that he had any real children.

Awotiwon purchased a flat in Southwark, with a mortgage in 2004 for around £172,000 which she was letting out while claiming to need homeless housing. She received £226,000 of housing over a 12 year period and is refusing to leave. Mr Goodwin said she was essentially ‘a landlord while claiming to be homeless’.

The court also heard that Ali-Balogun herself had previously applied for a council home as a result of domestic violence.

Operation Bronze started in 2011 and was based on the review of suspicious data matches from the Cabinet Office’s National Fraud Initiative (NFI) and the Metropolitan Police Operation Amberhill. So far 30 fraudsters have been convicted and 41 properties have been recovered and re-let to those with a genuine need for housing.

Ali-Balogun was found guilty of misconduct in public office. Awotiwon, of Southwark; Oyedele, of Bermondsey; and Falana, of Walworth, were each convicted of a single count of obtaining services by deception. Olaiya, of Gillingham, Kent, was found guilty of attempting to obtain services by deception.

Jailing Ali-Balogun for five years Judge Mark Bishop said: ‘You carried out these applications in such a way to make it look like you had carried out the correct procedures. Social housing, in particular in central London, is scarce. People wait in the queue for many years for council accommodation. By your misconduct you reduced the housing amount of available housing stock for genuine homeless applicants.’

When no housing was available the council had to place those looking for a home in B&B accomodation leaving the local taxpayer to foot the bill, said Judge Bishop. ‘You carried out this conduct for backhand and the jury found you were dishonest. You would not have processed any of these applications which were being made without this money. It seems to me very likely that you were paid more than £20,000. You would not have done it without being paid for it. This was a very serious abuse of public trust that was placed in you. You took advantage of your position as a public official. You conduct was serious and corrupt, it was not conduct for a public official to engage in.’

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