Four indicted in fraudulent jail-scheme to obtain unemployment benefits – one suspect was already in prison

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WORCESTER COUNTY, MA – According to the Massachusetts attorney general, four individuals have been indicted in an alleged unemployment fraud scheme that officials say was orchestrated while one of the accused was inside of the Worcester County Jail in May of 2020.

Attorney General Maura Healey recently announced the March 26th indictments of 38-year-old Darnell Harris, 57-year-old Marie Tavernier, 36-year-old Ebony Harris, and 39-year-old Gregory Harris.

Apparently, the four individuals indicted were allegedly involved in a fraudulent unemployment scheme that was meant to exploit the benefits being handed out in May of 2020 via the state’s Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program.

From what AG Healey says, the four coconspirators managed to defraud the state out of over $77,000 through their purported scheme.

Investigators say that this was a ploy all orchestrated by Darnell Harris, who is now currently incarcerated in Plymouth County House of Correction on an unrelated matter, while he was in custody at the Worcester County Jail during the time of the alleged scheme.

Back in May of 2020, authorities claim that Darnell Harris started to pass along personal identifying information of fellow inmates over to the three other individuals that have been charged in this alleged plot.

Sheriff Lew Evangelidis said that jail staff became alerted to the alleged scheme through a piece of intercepted mail that showcased all sorts of personal information of inmates held at the jail:

“It certainly made us think, ‘Why would somebody be sending out all this personal information regarding somebody?’”

Shortly after obtaining the intercepted letter that shared personal identifying information of other inmates, the sheriff’s Special Services Unit soon discovered recorded phone calls coming from the jail that also detailed aspects of the alleged fraudulent scheme.

Investigators claim that the four coconspirators filed a total of 13 false unemployment benefits claims through information obtained by other inmates inside of the jail during that time period in 2020. A total of $77,457 were illegitimately obtained through these fraudulent claims submitted.

The attorney general’s office also alleges that some of the ill-gotten gains were used to help post the $100K bond of Darnell Harris at the time of his pre-trial detention at the jail.

All four individuals are currently facing 13 counts of unemployment fraud, ten counts of larceny over $1200, three counts of attempted larceny and one count each of money laundering and conspiracy.

When further commenting on the case, Sheriff Evangelidis said that he was “disgusted” with the scheme the four are accused of committing:

“I was just disgusted… This is supposedly helping people in serious situations. And instead, you’ve got all this fraud going on. And not only is it happening all over the country, but it’s happening in our own correctional facility.”

Under arraignment is slated for June 7th at the Suffolk Superior Court for all four defendants in this matter.

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In other news related to those incarcerated, Law Enforcement Today reported back in January how inmates are poised to receive upwards of $2.6 billion in stimulus payments collectively. 

Here’s that previous report.

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By Robert Riggs, True Crime Reporter™ Podcast

Millions of dollars in $1200 stimulus checks intended for economic relief for the COVID-19 pandemic are flowing into prisoners’ accounts inside prisons and jails across the country.

The stimulus payments could total as much as $2.76 billion dollars if all of the people incarcerated apply and qualify for the pandemic aid, which is likely under the rules.

A Georgia prison warden not authorized to speak publicly complained that the sudden windfall is fueling the supply of drugs and contraband cell phones inside prisons.  Flush with cash, inmates are paying their associates on the outside to use drones to fly contraband over the walls of prisons shut down by the coronavirus. 

A prison investigator said he was shocked to find that an inmate who had already served twenty years of a life sentence had received a $1200 stimulus check. The stimulus aid has caused a shift in the balance of power between prison gangs according to the investigator who was not permitted to speak on the record.

Prisoner advocacy groups across the country are assisting prisoners in filing claims.

For example, the Mississippi Center For Justice and the Southern Poverty Law Center in partnership with Black Lives Matter describes on the MCJ website that it mailed almost 18,000 CARES Act packets–each containing all relevant instructions and Form 1040 with a stamped return envelope to inmates.

sample form provides step-by-step instructions on how to file for a $1200 stimulus check. 

The 2.3 million people incarcerated in U.S. jails and prisons are probably eligible to submit a “Non-Filer” claim to the IRS and will automatically receive $1200 stimulus checks.

Parnell McNamara the Sheriff of McLennan County, Texas says prisoners in his Waco jail are having their $1200 stimulus checks sent to family members.

“A lot of hardcore career criminals are receiving money intended for hard-working people. That they should receive one dime is a travesty,” said McNamara.

The IRS has sent thousands of forms to the Texas prison system for its 122-thousand inmates to claim $1200 stimulus checks under the CARES Act.  The prison system recently put up IRS posters instructing inmates on how to apply for economic relief for the COVID-19 pandemic.

This scene is playing out in state prisons and jails across the nation in the wake of a federal court order in October for the IRS to make the stimulus payments available to 2.3 million incarcerated prisoners. 

Less than ten stimulus checks have arrived at Texas prisons according to Jeremy Desel the Director of Communications for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. 

Desel says it is the department’s policy to first confirm that the IRS checks are valid before depositing the money into an inmate’s commissary trust fund account. Texas inmates use the money to purchase snacks, soft drinks, ice cream, and toiletries not provided by the prison system. Inmates also have the option of having the checks sent to family members.

The $2 trillion Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act or the CARES Act hastily passed by Congress on March 27 did not specifically ban payments to prisoners. The 883-page bill provided broad eligibility to get one-time payments for financial relief into people’s pockets as fast as possible. 

In May an internal auditor for the IRS discovered that the agency had automatically issued payments to prisoners. A federal report in June found that the government had paid $100 million in stimulus money to about 85,000 prisoners. The government demanded repayment and some federal prisons intercepted and returned stimulus checks.

A class-action lawsuit was filed in California on behalf of incarcerated individuals in local, state, and federal facilities that challenged the IRS actions.

A district court in San Francisco agreed, finding the IRS’s policy of withholding stimulus payments “arbitrary and capricious and not in accordance with the law.” 

On October 14, 2020, Chief Judge Phyllis J. Hamilton of the Northern District of California found the IRS’s policy of withholding stimulus payments “arbitrary and capricious and not in accordance with the law.”  Judge Hamilton ordered Treasury and the IRS to send the relief money. 

Inmates who receive stimulus checks in error do not have to return those checks because Congress did not include a “clawback” provision in the CARES Act.

An Oklahoma prison warden not authorized to speak on the record said of the stimulus checks that Christmas had come in November. 

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