The owner of a Melbourne daycare centre and her partner manipulated childcare loads and registered "phantom children" to claim federal subsidies and fund a lavish lifestyle, according to police.
Raids across Melbourne and Sydney on Wednesday have led to multiple arrests, including that of the 42-year-old Doncaster East woman identified as the daycare centre owner and her 47-year-old male partner.
Federal police allege a syndicate led by the pair defrauded taxpayers of more than $15 million, mostly in the form of childcare subsidy payments.
AFP Commander Todd Hunter said on Saturday the centre was falsely logging the hours of children it oversaw, received subsidies beyond the permissible amount and claimed care of children not present.
The daycare owner and her partner also claimed more than $2.4 million in fraudulent COVID-19 stimulus package payments for other businesses they operated, primarily a restaurant in Melbourne.
Three other alleged syndicate members were on Wednesday also arrested - a 39-year-old Epping man who worked in the daycare centre's office and two Roxburgh Park childcare educators aged 28 and 31.
Mr Hunter alleged the Doncaster East couple had used their fraudulent gains to fuel a glitzy lifestyle, which included luxury travel and clothes, and a Maserati. They had also built up an extensive real estate portfolio.
"We allege the two main co-accused have funded grand and luxurious lifestyles on money defrauded from Australian taxpayers," Mr Hunter told reporters.
"This is money that belongs in the hands of our community."
Mr Hunter said a raid in southwestern Sydney's Bankstown was on the pair's accountant, with financial documents seized.
He anticipated more people would be charged in connection with the matter and said the value of the fraud was likely to rise.
The Doncaster East pair and Epping man have been charged with serious fraud offences including dishonesty and conspiracy to cause a loss to the Commonwealth, and face 10 years' imprisonment.
The Roxburgh Park women have been charged with fraud offences.
All five people have been bailed to face court on June 9, 2021.
Mr Hunter confirmed the daycare centre in question was the largest claimant of Commonwealth childcare subsidies in Australia.
"It's more around the systems, how they've gone about manipulating the hours in the system over a period of time," he said.
Federal Education Minister Dan Tehan on Saturday told reporters his department had hired an additional 380 integrity officials since 2018 and saved $3.1 billion via a crackdown on childcare fraud.
"The government is absolutely determined to make sure it continues to crack down on any fraud occurring against the Australian taxpayer," he said.
Australian Associated Press