Special constable jailed for £80,000 benefit fraud

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A special constable was jailed for 16 months today after admitting fraudulently claiming nearly £80,000 in benefits.

Gina Conopo started claiming income support and housing and council tax benefit legitimately in 1999 when she and husband Simon separated, Northampton Crown Court heard.

But when they got back together, the mother-of-two failed to notify authorities and carried on claiming the amounts.

The court heard for a period of just over seven years, Conopo, of Grasscroft, Long Buckby, Northants, fraudulently claimed £46,321.27 in income support and £33,267.48 in council and housing tax benefit.

The 40-year-old pleaded guilty to two counts of failing to notify a change of circumstances on the first day of a trial in June.

Prosecutor Adam Western said: "The change of circumstances of which she should have informed the Department of Work and Pensions and Daventry Council is that her husband Simon Conopo was living with her again.

"The period of which she should have informed the department and council is just over seven years."

He said Conopo had been sent regular leaflets reminding her to notify of any changes regarding her benefits, but she had not.

"The evidence that the defendant and Simon Conopo were living together is that Simon Conopo gave her address, the family address, as his address to various agencies such as Companies House, and in respect of the registration of vehicles," Mr Western said.

He said the couple also made a joint application for credit in 2006, in which Conopo said she was married, and they had a joint income of £35,000.

The court heard since she was discovered Conopo, who has since resigned from Northamptonshire Police, had repaid just over £4,500 of the debts and was planning to repay £500 per month.

Sentencing her to 16 months in prison, Judge Christopher Metcalf said Conopo did not only have no previous convictions, but had "positive good character".

He said he took into account her personal circumstances and the fact she has two sons, aged 19 and 16, and also the fact her original claims were legitimate.

"In your case there is no doubt, there's no history of extravagant lifestyle and it is set in the context of your financial problems.

"I make it clear that prison is not simply for matters of rehabilitation.

"It's sometimes there as a punishment and to send out a message to the public that people who take this huge amount of money over such a period of time are not going to escape.

"There are many people in a position as bad, if not worse, than you, Mrs Conopo, who do not resort to offending."

Steven Evans, mitigating, said Conopo was not in work and was currently "surviving on benefits".

He said she was repaying the money at £500 per month, not much more than she was receiving, and they were living off her husband's earnings.

He said: "This is a great fall from grace for somebody who lives in a small community.

"This was not to fund a lavish lifestyle, this was to survive financially. The Department was not targeted by a professional outfit.

"In this case there has been a genuine attempt to repay the monies and that will continue."

A Northamptonshire Police spokeswoman said: "As soon as this investigation was brought to our attention earlier this year Special Constable Gina Conopo offered her resignation, which was accepted."

Minister for Welfare Reform Lord Freud said: "When people receive benefits from us they enter into a contract to tell us of any change in their circumstances.

"Deliberately not doing so is a crime and takes valuable funds from those who need them the most.

"At best they will have to repay us all the money they have taken, at worst they will end up a criminal and in the pages of a newspaper."