Australia — A GRANDFATHER who fraudulently collected more than $100,000 in grants from a Black Saturday appeal fund because he was traumatised by the bushfires has avoided jail.
Habib Khoury, 61, dishonestly claimed the destroyed Pheasant Creek property he owned and leased out was his family’s primary place of residence.
As a result, the tenants who lived on the property and ran the attached supermarket had their application for the initial home dislocation grant refused.
Defence counsel Michael Tovey, QC, said Khourys psychological state was compromised as a result of the trauma of the 2009 fires.
The Lower Templestowe man received a total of $111,000 from the Victorian Bushfire Appeal Fund intended for relocation, rebuilding and the winter needs of those whose homes were destroyed in the blaze.
Mr Tovey said Khoury was in the midst of turning the shed at the back of the property into the ideal retirement home for his wife and himself when the property burned down.
Daughter Diana Khoury, 25, told the court the father of fives dream home was almost complete.
Retiring in Kinglake was (my parents) dream it was the way they saw they could bring the village life of Lebanon to Victoria, Ms Khoury said.
It was their ultimate retirement plan.
She said her parents watched live news coverage of Kinglake burning in horror and saw a massive explosion near a shop they believed was theirs.
My parents just broke down, saying, Thats the shop, thats the shop, she said.
Ms Khoury said her dad would visit the property, searching the remains for anything salvageable, but everything was destroyed, everything.
He still had drill bits and burnt coins he found in the debris, the court heard.
She said her father became withdrawn after losing the income from the supermarket business and learning the property was inadequately insured.
The court heard Khoury was diagnosed with depression and anxiety.
Khoury pleaded guilty to one charge of obtaining property by deception, which carries a maximum penalty of 10 years’ imprisonment.
County Court Chief Judge Michael Rozenes accepted Khourys mental illness reduced his moral culpability because it impaired his perception, judgment and reasoning.
He said it was not surprising a man who had done everything right and worked hard to build his dream retirement home had cracked under the pressure of the bushfires destroying it all.
Chief Judge Rozenes said the community would likely view deceiving the bushfire appeal fund as more serious than some other government agency, but would not be outraged that Khoury received a suspended sentence in the circumstances.
He said the irony of Khoury telling his psychologist he helped raise money for the bushfire appeal fund was palpable.
Khoury was sentenced to 12 months’ imprisonment, wholly suspended for 12 months.
The court heard Khoury repaid the $111,000 by bank cheque this morning.
Mr Tovey said Khoury could receive a $15,000 refund from the bushfire fund because those with property destroyed that was not their primary residence were now entitled to some funds. The failure was in the forest areas.Advertisement
Following a 10-year strategy, ACT fire managers have created a mosaic across the landscape of different fuel levels, burning at every opportunity.
But forests have been too wet to burn this spring and the past two summers.
A network of 500 fire trails and strategic burns along the north-west urban edge, heavy grazing and extra grass slashing will create a fortress for the territory which forecasters say faces a higher than average risk this summer.
After a fire-fuelled tornado in January 2003 killed four Canberrans and frightened thousands more, CSIRO fire expert Phil Cheney told the subsequent inquiry the fire’s penetration into urban areas under extreme conditions did not reflect a failure of fuel management on the urban interface.