'Vegas marriage just a drunken laugh' - mum accused of €30k fraud
A mother-of-four accused of unlawfully obtaining almost €30,000 in one-parent family social welfare payments has claimed her drunken Las Vegas wedding was just "a bit of fun" and she did not know it was legal here.
Hearing the case at Dublin District Court, Judge John Brennan compared it to the film The Hangover, starring Bradley Cooper, about the misadventures of a group of men at a bachelor party in Las Vegas.
Michelle Burke (39), of Cappagh Road, Finglas, Dublin 11, is being prosecuted by the Department of Social Protection.
The total alleged fraud was €29,773 and it was the prosecution's case that she got married and failed to notify the department while claiming the one-parent family payment between November 2010 and August 2012, which she denies.
The trial heard she had been in receipt of the payment since 1997. Social welfare inspector Helen O'Reilly told prosecuting counsel Gareth Robinson BL that the accused was getting €317-a-week.
She told the trial that in 2011 and 2013 reviews were conducted and Ms Burke signed declarations that she had not got married nor was she living with a partner.
However, Ms O'Reilly told Judge John Brennan there was a suspicion she may have been cohabiting. An investigation commenced and she was able to obtain a copy of a marriage certificate from the US.
She agreed with Mr Robinson it confirmed Ms Burke got married to her current partner on November 6, 2010, at the Hollywood Wedding Chapel in Las Vegas.
The Clark County marriage certificate had her date of birth and address as well as that of the man she married.
The court heard the certificate was recognised in Ireland.
Her payment was stopped and she was interviewed but told the inspector she did not think the marriage was legal.
She also said her partner, who was not the father of her children, paid tax and then lived at a different address in Dublin 1.
The inspector told defence counsel Matthew Holmes BL the marriage was legally binding for the purpose of social welfare. She also agreed the defendant and her partner were now claiming a family allowance.
Following legal submissions over the validity of the US marriage documents, the judge accepted the certificate was evidence of what was recorded.
In the witness box, Ms Burke claimed she had gone to America for a few days with a group of 16 or 17 friends for a 30th birthday party.
Questioned by her barrister about her marriage, she claimed "we just thought it was funny" and it was done "for a laugh", adding: "I honestly didn't think it was legal."
Asked why she did not remember much about the ceremony, she replied: "Because we were drunk."
In cross-examination, she said they were "walking up and down the Strip a few times and saying, 'Do you want to get married?'. We thought it'd be funny, like".
She also said she could not remember much about the ceremony, performed by a Rev Dennis Kovarik, but she agreed the certificate had her address and date of birth as well as her partner's details and that they had to hand over their passports beforehand.
Mr Holmes also asked the judge to note the woman's evidence and the legal principle of an "honest though unreasonable belief".
He argued that at all times the woman had stated that it was her belief that the marriage was not legal and "an innocent act is always a defence".
Judge Brennan commented that the Hangover films came to mind but added that, joking aside, it was a serious matter and he adjourned the case to May to consider legal submissions from both sides.