HAYLEY GASTMEIER
hayley.gastmeier@age.co.nz
A Featherston pensioner couple found guilty of benefit fraud say they had no idea they were doing anything wrong.
David Paul Longhurst, 67, and Stephanie Mary Whitehead-Longhurst, 69, were convicted on Friday on charges laid by the Ministry of Social Development, of wilfully omitting to declare almost $150,000 of income, including sales on Trade Me, while they received benefits.
It is estimated the couple were overpaid around $53,000 in invalids benefit and superannuation over a seven-year period,
Longhurst was charged with misleading a social welfare officer, as well as four counts of using a document for pecuniary advantage.
Whitehead-Longhurst was charged with misleading a social welfare officer.
After a three-day trial in Masterton District Court last month, Judge Bruce Davidson convicted the pair on the charges on Friday.
In his written decision, Judge Davidson said the evidence presented carried “a flavour of a small business”.
“The blunt reality is that Trade Me sales simply amount to money received and should have been declared as income.”
The couple, who are yet to be sentenced, were astounded by the outcome.
“I just can’t believe it,” Whitehead-Longhurst said after the court appearance.
“We’ve done nothing wrong.”
Judge Davidson said Longhurst’s claim that he was unaware he had to tell MSD of money received from different sources was “implausible”, due to the “sheer volume” of money, and the regularity that was deposited into his account.
“It is in excess of $123,000 over seven years from 673 individual deposits. To suggest that he at no stage considered this should be disclosed is plain nonsense.”
The judge said Whitehead-Longhurst received deposits totalling $25,700.
“Although the $8200 received as repayment of small loans to her daughter has been explained, what is inescapable is that she must have been aware of her husband’s trading activities and the ongoing deposits into his account.”
Judge Davison concluded that she “knew she had to disclose it and deliberately chose not to in order to continue to receive unabated benefit”.
The couple maintain the money was payments for selling personal items, contributions from two of their adult children for living costs, and repaid loans from their daughter.
MSD analysed the bank accounts of the couples, identifying 899 deposits it suspected as income from 2009 to 2016.
These included items sold on the Trade Me platform, in which there were recurring listings of vehicles, drum kits and chainsaws.
Longhurst said in evidence that he enjoyed “doing up” these items and as it was a “hobby” he never regarded it as income-generating.
He said he and his wife were fulltime caregivers and the money paid by their children was a small contribution to the total costs of running the household.
The couple have two adult children living at home.
Both are on invalids benefits. Their son has a form of cerebral palsy and their daughter was in a serious accident.
“I was totally unaware that board payments from your children was considered income,” Longhurst said on Friday.
He said it was not common knowledge that “a birthday gift from granny” in the form of money was income.
An investigation was launched after MSD were given a tip-off that Longhurst was operating a tow and salvage business, however the ministry found no evidence of this.
Judge Davidson has ordered pre-sentence reports and reparation reports to assist him in sentencing.