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Pair ran private detective agency while civil servants

Brian McManus leaves Belfast Crown Court after a previous hearing

TWO Social Security Agency benefit fraud investigators have been fined £750 each for running a private detective agency while working as civil servants.

Brian McManus (50), of Green Road in east Belfast, and Elaine Copes (43) of Ebor Street in south Belfast pleaded guilty to a charge of wilful misconduct in public office by setting up Comac Investigation Services (CIS), which "undermined public trust and confidence in the investigative work of the SSA''.

Belfast Crown Court heard that the offences were committed between April 2007 and August 2008.

At an arraignment hearing in April this year, the pair denied charges of misconduct in public office, conspiracy to pervert the court of justice and fraud by false representation.

Following their guilty pleas yesterday to a new fourth charge, prosecution lawyer Kate McKay asked that the other three be "left on the books and not to be proceeded with without the leave of the Crown Court or the Court of Appeal''.

She told Judge Gordon Kerr that the offences first came to light in 2008, when the defendants were working for the Social Security Agency as benefit fraud investigators.

The judge was told that as well as catching people "doing the double'', McManus and Copes investigated people for making claimants for other benefits they were not entitled to.

She said setting up CIS created a "conflict of interest with their employment as public servants''.

When first employed as civil servants they signed documents stating "they would not do anything that would create a conflict of interest''.

The court heard that their CIS firm carried out work on behalf of Quinn Direct Insurance Services investigating insurance claims.

"They would go out and video people who made insurance claims to show that they were able to do things they said they couldn't do as a result of an accident,'' said Ms McKay.

The court was told that neither defendant had a previous criminal record.

Defence barrister Jonpaul Shields said Copes had worked for the SSA since 1993 and had been a trained fraud investigator.

He said that last year she drew down £6,000 from the company's profits of £20,000.

But he said this year "has been a difficult trading period for the company'' and Copes was now in monthly receipt of £200 in tax credits.

Taylor Campbell for McManus said the married father-of-two was also financially struggling after media reports of his committal proceedings earlier this year which had a negative effect on Comac.

Judge Kerr said it was "one of the strangest cases of misconduct in public office I have come across''.

He said Copes and McManus had set up their private investigative firm out of "greed''.

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