A day care owner who amassed a a multi-million dollar fortune through bogus benefit claims has been jailed for at least four years.
But fraudster Melissa Jade Higgins, 29, intends to appeal the conviction and sought bail immediately after her sentence was delivered in the Downing Centre District Court on Friday.
Judge Donna Woodburne stood the bail hearing over until later this afternoon. Higgins hugged her father and broke down into tears before she was handcuffed and led from the court by corrections officers.
In delivering her sentence, Ms Woodburne said Higgins was motivated by greed when she deliberately and repeatedly abused a government scheme designed to help vulnerable children.
Ms Woodburne said a term of imprisonment was the only appropriate sentence, noting the "great injustice" Higgins had committed against all genuine welfare recipients in order to enrich herself.
"She conceived of and actively implemented what was a planned and premeditated fraudulent scheme," Ms Woodburne said.
"Ms Higgins embarked upon a persistent and brazen course of offending."
Higgins was last year found guilty by a jury of 81 offences, including 66 counts of dishonestly obtaining financial advantage by deception, 14 counts of using a forged document and one count of dealing with the proceeds of crime in excess of $1 million.
She raked in more than $3.6 million in taxpayer funding by making false claims for government benefits on behalf of Aussie Giggles, her family day-care centre in Albury.
Higgins made the claims online, deceiving the Federal Department of Education and Department of Human Services into paying funds she was not entitled to receive under the Special Child Care Benefit scheme between September 2013 and March 2015.
Forged documents, including under the hand of medical practitioners and child protection officers, were created to support her claims for "grossly inflated and unreal fees" as high as $9000 per week per child.
"The fee that was being dishonestly claimed by the offender was not a real fee. It was a ridiculous and exorbitant fee claimed precisely because and only because the government was footing the bill," Ms Woodburne said.
Higgins transferred the bulk of the funds from the company into five personal bank accounts. Despite two compliance reviews, she continued to make the sham claims.
Ms Woodburne said Higgins had installed a pool, purchased a $90,000 car and a house with the funds but noted she had not lived a "lifestyle with the trappings of a person with great wealth".
"The fact that an offender does not squander ill gotten gains particularly on the type of luxury item that may serve to garner unwanted attention and instead places the bulk of it in accounts to which the offender has access and controls does not detract from the fact or extent of the financial advantage gained," Ms Woodburne said.
Supported by her family in court, Higgins has been on bail since the jury verdict despite two attempts by the prosecution to have her taken into custody.
She has steadfastly maintained her innocence, saying she has no idea how or why she was found guilty.
"I find I am unable to conclude that the offender has reasonable prospects of rehabilitation or that she is unlikely to reoffend," Ms Woodburne said.
The majority of the Commonwealth funds stolen by Higgins are expected to be recovered.
She was sentenced to a maximum of seven years jail. She will be eligible for parole in May 2021.
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