Saturday 29 April 2023 | Written by Al Williams | Published in Court, National
The High Court in Avarua heard Vincent Ahiao, a former police officer, was involved in the offending with co-accused Sharon Samuel over a period of several years.
On Friday it was put to him that $118, 840 of MSD funds had been taken between 2011 and 2016.
In reading the summary of facts in court, Crown lawyer Jamie Crawford said authorities were alerted to a fraud matter in January 2017, when the ANZ Bank notified Cook Islands Financial Intelligence Unit regarding a potential fraud matter.
The bank was alerted after receiving a tax deduction order from the Revenue Management Department for the account of “Deceased Estate of Marie Gideon”.
Gideon died on January 12, 2011.
Up until her death, she had been receiving NZ pension payments from the MSD.
In order to receive a pension, an individual is required to sign a declaration and return it to MSD which confirms contact details and that they are still entitled to receive a pension.
Gideon died intestate.
On April 8, 2011, Ahiao, her nephew, was granted probate by the Cook Islands High Court as the executor of her estate.
He gained control of her ANZ account and her mailbox soon after.
The defendant and his partner, Sharon Samuel, both had an ATM account card to access the account and had shared access to the mailbox key.
Pension payments normally cease once MSD is advised of a pensioner’s death and an executor of an estate may also request for payments to continue for up to 28 days after death, in order to cover funeral and related expense.
However, in this instance, MSD was not advised of Gideon’s death and no request was made by the defendant.
The court heard a declaration was sent to Gideon’s mailbox in December 2010 as per the usual process and the pension payments stopped on April 13, 2011 as MSD had not received a completed declaration.
On June 27, 2011, Samuel completed the outstanding declaration form and forged Gideon’s signature. The declaration form was then returned to MSD. The defendant said he was not aware of this.
A letter from MSD dated July 15, 2011, confirmed receipt of the forged declaration and confirmed the pension payments would resume.
On August 2, 2011, a payment of $5718.40 (backdated to April 13, 2011) was made from MSD to Gideon’s Cook Islands bank account.
From June 2011 until December 2016 Samuel continued to complete and return the declaration forms and the monthly pension payments continued.
Samuel forged Gideon’s signature on each of the declarations.
There were also a number of occasions that she forged lawyer Norman George’s signature, as a witness to Gideon’s signature.
A total of $118,840.44 was paid by MSD into Gideon’s account during the period June 2011 to December 2016.
The couple were the only people with access to the account and regularly made cash withdraws from the account.
Ahiao said he was not aware that Samuel was completing and returning the declarations, however, continued to receive and spend the money, and did not advise or enquire with MSD as to why the pension payments continued after his aunt’s death.
He was interviewed in May 2017 and denied filing any declaration forms.
Ahiao was re-interviewed in July 2021 and maintained he did not know anything about the forged declarations but said that he knew the pension payments continued and admitted spending the pension money.
He said that he didn’t know how to stop the payments.
The court heard Samuel, who has been charged with forgery and conspiracy to defraud, is attempting to raise money in mitigation.
Samuel entered a guilty plea to obtaining by deception on January20 when she appeared alongside Ahiao in the High Court.
Ahiao’s lawyer, Michelle Tangimama, in court on Friday said she was of the understanding a sentencing date was to be fixed.
Chief Justice Patrick Keane said he had convicted Samuel at the last call over, and at that stage, Ahiao was going to enter a not guilty plea to receiving.
He asked for a victim impact statement and a date for sentencing.
There would be an attempt for some restitution, CJ Keane said, before the matter was adjourned to May.
A jury trial had been scheduled for November but had been postponed after there had been a change in counsel and a late plea.
There had been some amendments and discussions about resolution.