A woman accused of stealing $104,000 in grant money allocated for bushfire and COVID-19 victims has been granted bail.
Ellen Louise Howard, 32, from the Lower Hunter region of NSW, is facing 16 charges of dishonestly obtaining financial advantage by deception.
These charges include a further $258,000, which she allegedly tried but failed to receive.
Following the catastrophic bushfires and COVID-19 pandemic, state governments were “generously giving away money to assist people affected by such events,” Justice Robert Hulme said in the NSW Supreme Court on Wednesday.
“And because of the urgency about it and the need to provide money to needy people the checks and balances that would otherwise be in place were not there,” he said.
“In short the money was just there for the asking.”
At the time Howard allegedly committed her crimes of fraud she was out on bail for other matters, had been placed on a community corrections order for shoplifting, and had received an intensive corrections order for drug and damaging property offences.
Not long after receiving the ICO she was arrested in November 2020 and has remained in custody.
In one instance she allegedly claimed to be operating a made-up pharmacy in an area of Tasmania not adversely impacted by bushfires.
Defence barrister Simon Healy proposed a set of conditions that would allow police to monitor his client “like a hawk” if released on bail.
But Justice Hulme said police did not have the resources to “watch her like a hawk” and dedicate a whole taskforce to keeping their eyes on Howard 24/7.
Howard’s recent convictions suggest possible drug addiction as the contributing factor to why she allegedly stole so much money, the Crown submitted.
The Crown also said pending charges were to be laid imminently by police relating to COVID-19 grants sought in Victoria, pointing to possible reoffending if released.
Most of Howard’s alleged misconduct involved her accessing the Service NSW website and giving false details to obtain grant money into separate bank accounts.
“Simple as that”, Justice Hulme said.
Upon release Howard must remain at her Aberdare address, report to police three times a week, not take any illegal drugs and not access the internet.
She is next due to appear at Cessnock court on May 5.