ONE of the “faces” of Henley has been convicted of benefit fraud.
Josette Ofiera, 51, received more than £16,000 in housing benefit she wasn’t entitled to over a three-year period.
She was given an eight-week suspended prison sentence and a 7pm curfew when she appeared at Oxford Magistrates’ Court on Monday. She had earlier pleaded guilty to two charges of benefit fraud.
Ofiera was also ordered to pay back all the money by 2017 as well as £439 in costs. The shop assistant was told it was a serious matter involving a substantial amount of taxpayers’ money.
The court heard how Ofiera, of Adwell Square, had dishonestly failed to notify South Oxfordshire District Council that she had received an inheritance in excess of £61,000.
She was also found to have deliberately made a false statement that said she had no further bank or building society accounts beyond those previously declared.
Ofiera broke down in tears as she told the Standard that she regretted her error of judgment.
She said: “It’s my own fault and now I’m paying the price. I want to put it all behind me.
“I’m truly sorry for what I did but I don’t think the court understood that. I’m going to pay it all back.”
Ofiera and her daughter had lived with her parents in West Street but had to move out when her father, a restaurant manager, died in November 2005, just 18 months after her mother had passed away.
She began claiming housing benefit but did not notify the council when the three-bedroom house was sold in June 2008 and she received the inheritance, which was split between herself and three siblings.
The overpayments only stopped in 2011 after irregularities with her benefits claim were found by officials at the district coucil checking data such as bank accounts, National Insurance and tax payments.
It was found she had received about £19,000 in housing benefit that she wasn’t entitled to but this amount was reduced to £16,827 after she handed back five uncashed cheques.
Ofiera, who was interviewed under caution, claimed she had made an innocent mistake.
She said: “When the probate of my father’s estate came through I was supposed to let the housing officer know I had come into this money but I kept claiming.
“I forgot to tell them, it wasn’t deliberate. I thought at the time I shouldn’t be claiming it any more and wrote to the council saying I would like to cancel my benefit. I failed to give them the right account number. I have two account numbers and I only told them about one.”
Despite her admission, the council felt she should be prosecuted because of the amount of money involved and the length of deception.
Ofiera’s prison sentence was suspended by six months, providing she does not commit any further offences and that she complies with a 12-week curfew order that applies from 7pm to 7am, Sunday to Thursday.
Councillor David Dodds, cabinet member for finance at the district council, said: “This was a very clear and ultimately costly deception carried out by someone who knew all along that they were doing wrong.
“We simply will not tolerate deliberate acts such as this, which rob the public purse of much-needed funds.”
Last year, Ofiera was included in the 100 Faces of Henley charity project, a portrait gallery of well-known faces in the town.
MsOfiera was chosen because she had worked as a sales assistant at WH Smith in Bell Street for more than 30 years.
Shop manager Lukasz Majczna said: “Josette is a really nice person — she is always smiling and is funny. The people who come in here love her.”