Uatesoni Filimoehala, a father of five, who devised a deceptive business plot to cheat the government out of more than $120,000 in Covid-19 wage subsidies, has been condemned to two years and three months in prison.
Appearing at Auckland’s District Court facing four counts of dishonestly taking or misusing official documentation, Filimoehala had appealed for home detention. His plea was however rejected by Judge Robyn von Keisenberg, who remained unimpressed by Filimoehala’s pledge to repay $20,000 by Monday. Seemingly, his willingness to compensate the swindled money contrasted feeble efforts to repay smaller amounts in recent times.
Addressing the case, Judge Von Keisenberg reiterated that fraudulent activities against the state are never victimless, emphasizing that exploiting relief schemes designed for emergencies or crises would always be dealt with harshly.
The deceptive scheme unfolded when Filimoehala registered ’42 Construction’ as a business in April 2020, during the onset of New Zealand’s inaugural Covid-19 lockdown. Hours after the wage subsidy program kicked off, Filimoehala, under the alias Watson Filimoehala, concealed his bankruptcy and submitted his first application. He claimed wage subsidies six times in the ensuing 17 months, garnering $126,532 in total. His inventiveness involved listing genuine individuals as employees, who ironically never worked for the company and were already receiving wage subsidies from their true employers.
In a recent court session, Filimoehala’s defense attorney, Graeme Newell, presented letters of contrition from Filimoehala and supportive notes from his wife and pastor. Laying emphasis on his client’s remorse and commitment to refund the swindled amount, Newell affirmed that Filimoehala has willingly assumed full accountability for his actions.
Meanwhile, Prosecutor Jessica Blythe argued that Filimoehala’s actions were well thought-out long-term fraud. She urged for a custodial sentence pointing out Filimoehala’s disappointment in complying with a community-based sentence imposed in 2014.
In her verdict, Judge von Keisenberg acknowledged Filimoehala’s guilt, granting him a 5 percent reduction in his sentence for remorse and another 5 percent for the difficulties his imprisonment will pose to his school-aged children. Nonetheless, she decisively affirmed that the fraudulent scheme was extensively premeditated and merited severe punishment.
The Covid-19 Wage Subsidy Scheme was flagged off by the Ministry of Social Development in March 2020 with the aim of assisting businesses and their staff to navigate through the initial lockdown and the subsequent ones. Given the urgency of the situation, the government admitted a “high trust” approach when scrutinizing applications, to rapidly assist the needy.