Rita Mercuri defrauded $164,000 from Worksafe following a workplace accident in 1985. She underwent a lower-leg amputation and has since been using a prosthetic leg. Her former workplace paid her weekly compensation to cover her for unemployment.
Then, in 2008, Mercuri started claiming 24-hour carers’ assistance, visiting doctors and claiming that she was wheelchair ridden, and needed 24/7 care.
In reality, Mercuri had cut deals with carers; her carers agreed to say they were looking after Mercuri, earning wages for her care that they then split with Mercuri. Mercuri enlisted single mothers and women doing it tough to be her accomplices, offering them easy money if they backed up her lies. Two of her ‘carers’ were also family members.
The scheme was working smoothly, until Worksafe undertook private investigation into Mercuri’s claims. Their surveillance proved that Mercuri was capable of walking without assistance, and able to drive herself to where she managed and coached her son’s basketball team. She also helped out at the canteen of the club where her children played football.
Although Mercuri attended all her court hearings in a wheelchair, the video surveillance provided by Worksafe’s private investigators proved her dishonesty, and she was sentenced to eight months jail.
Magistrate Suzanne Cameron of Heidelberg Magistrates Court ordered Mercuri to repay $112,187 to Worksafe – a strong deterrent to others considering the profitability of fraud. The magistrate said that the community would not allow this kind of deliberate fraud to undermine legitimate claimants. She found it especially galling that someone with the ability to work was claiming benefits designed for the truly incapacitated. “You were clearly the mastermind and the primary beneficiary,” said the magistrate. “Aspects of your conduct were breathtakingly audacious.”
In a later appeal hearing, Mercuri pleaded guilty to fraudulently obtaining compensation payments, providing false information to doctors, forging timesheets and giving false invoices for services never provided during 2008 to 2011. In all, six carers were implicated, and five of these were charged and punished. Several of these carers claimed to have been caring for Mercuri while actually on holiday or working elsewhere.
The research by Worksafe’s private investigators was vital to revealing Mercuri’s fraud. Mercuri was unaware of the surveillance by the private investigators, and thus continued to operate blatantly without the help of carers, sealing her own sentence.