A former Flight Centre travel agent has pleaded guilty to defrauding a pensioner travel scheme through the Northern Territory government, resulting in over $110,000 of illegal revenue.
Appearing in the Supreme Court, 45-year-old Vanessa Barrett admitted to the fraud, which she carried out during her time working at Flight Centre’s Palmerston branch between 2011 and 2013, according to the ABC.
Barrett admitted to submitting and securing reimbursement from the NT Health Department for 169 false invoices at higher flight costs, when in actual fact, the flights she purchased for pensioners were much cheaper.
However, rather than pocketing the extra cash, which was the case for previously convicted Darwin travel agent Xana Kamitsis, who was jailed in 2015 for defrauding the same pensioner travel scheme, Barrett funneled almost all of the extra money back into Flight Centre.
Per the ABC, Barrett then received a $4000 annual bonus as a result of her impressive sales results.
Her lawyer, Peter Maley, claims she was “absolutely devastated and destroyed” by what she did, and asked for the court to consider a home detention punishment, given she didn’t actually keep all the money for herself, and the “lion’s share” went to the Flight Centre agency.
But, in a shocking twist, Maley claimed this kind of practice is “widespread” in travel agencies across the Northern Territory, with ABC reporting he even said the practice was discussed at Flight Centre staff meetings.
“It was a universal and common practice,” Maley said, per ABC.
Travel Weekly contacted Flight Centre but they were unable to comment on an open and ongoing court case.
The prosecutors of Barrett said regardless of the claims this was common practice, it still didn’t excuse her actions.
“Everyone was doing it, but that doesn’t make this individual less culpable,” Prosecutor David Morters said.
“Her fraud was part of the reason she was able to shine in this organisation.”
“People have to do a risk evaluation if they are contemplating engaging in this activity,” he added, explaining that Barrett undermined the NT Government’s pensioner scheme, and her sentencing should set an example for others considering doing the same.
According to the ABC, Flight Centre has repaid $1.8 million to the NT Government in settlement of a different civil dispute over the practice of submitting false – and inflated – invoices.
Barrett’s case is, per ABC, one of several that have been launched in an ongoing fraud investigation by NT Police into travel agents rorting this particular pensioner travel concession scheme.
In May, another NT travel agent, Tennille Kim Foley, was sentenced to three months’ home detention for committing fraud and stealing $40,000 from the Government illegally.
The prosecutors in Barrett’s case told the court that a sentence of at least three years would be deemed suitable, per the ABC, with her case adjourned until July 24.
Barrett and her lawyer hope she will be considered a suitable candidate for home detention, with the maximum penalty for this particular crime 14 years, per ABC.