THE scam started off small - but by the time he was caught, a Gladstone pub worker had ripped off taxpayers to the tune of $49,882.
Justin Andrew Stevens, 34, appeared in Gladstone District Court on Monday charged with the Commonwealth offence of obtaining financial advantage by deception.
Stevens, who most recently worked at the Central Lane Hotel, addressed the court to plead guilty to the charge, then remained quiet and respectful for the rest of the proceedings.
As a small group of tearful family and friends sat in the gallery, the court heard he had begun caring for his terminally-ill uncle on the Gold Coast in 2008.
His role as a full-time carer meant he qualified for means-tested carer payments and a carer's allowance benefit from Centrelink.
But when he started casual work at the Canungra Hotel in 2010, he chose not to report all of his income - the first step down a path which would later see him facing a substantial prison sentence.
Upon moving to Rockhampton to work at the Capricorn Hotel in 2012, Stevens failed to inform Centrelink he was no longer caring for his uncle, and continued to claim the allowance and payments for a further 44 fortnights.
The scam, described as "unsophisticated" by the prosecution, was first detected by the Australian Taxation Office in a data matching exercise in 2013.
An investigation was opened into his case, and Centrelink raised the debt with him in August of that year - bringing the deception to an end.
Over two years and eight months, he had earned a total gross income of $107,466.25 from three employers, and only declared $2275.65 of that income to Centrelink - leading the agency to pay him $49,882 in benefits he was not entitled to.
Procedures were commenced against him in Beaudesert Magistrates Court the following April.
In sentencing Stevens, Judge Michael Burnett said it was clear the defendant's conduct had been deliberate and persistent, and the scale of the dishonesty plus the need to deter such behaviour meant a harsh sentence was the only appropriate option.
"Unfortunately sometimes people take the view that the Commonwealth is an easy touch," he said.
"We now live in an age where governments have budget deficits projected into the future forever.
"The community expects punishment and thus... this warrants a custodial sentence."
Judge Burnett acknowledged Stevens had repaid $7110 so far, and reparation was only being sought by the Commonwealth for the remainder owing.
But he said it was important for Stevens to recognise he was essentially living on money borrowed from the taxpayer.
"It's like a loan... interest-free at that," he said.
Judge Burnett acknowledged the defence's argument that Stevens had not been living a lavish lifestyle with the money, and had used it only for living expenses - including a period during the resources boom in Gladstone when his rent was $580 a week.
He also accepted Stevens represented a good prospect of rehabilitation given his employment record around central Queensland, including a brief period when he obtained a management licence for the Biloela Hotel, and the fact he had been afforded significant responsibility at Gladstone's Central Lane Hotel, including handling cash.
"So it seems that you are generally regarded as someone trustworthy and reliable," he said.
He sentenced Stevens to two years in prison, with three months to be served before parole, plus a four-year good behaviour bond.
Stevens' friend and co-worker spoke in support of him outside the court, telling The Observer that despite what had gone on in court, she knew him to be an honest, selfless man who cared about people.
"Everyone around here knows... if you have a problem, you go to Justin. He'll sort it out," she said.
"He's true to his word. If he says he's going to do something... he will."
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