U.S. Attorney: Inmates defrauding unemployment over past few months may have cost tax payers billions

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PITTSBURGH, PA– When the economy all but shut down in the face of the coronavirus, many Americans were left wondering how they were going to feed their families. With COVID-19 relief funding through unemployment, many were able to get by. 

However, there are always that group that figures out how to cheat the system, and this time, that group is prison inmates. 

According to KDKA, inmates and their accomplices have been illegally filing for, and receiving, an average of $10,000 each in pandemic assistance is happening on a massive scale. It is reported that it is not only Pennsylvania inmates that are committing this scheme, but inmates all across the country are partaking. 

U.S Attorney Scott Brady says it could deprive taxpayers of billions, stating:

“I think we’re talking about billions of dollars nationally and what that means is that that’s billions of dollars not available to families that are really hurting,” 

KDKA reported that they first discovered the fraud on a recorded phone call at Allegheny County Jail. Inmate Lamont Wilford awaiting trial for murder is suspected of working with his girlfriend on the outside to secure about $10,000 dollars of pandemic unemployment assistance.

U.S. Attorney Scott Brady and Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro charged 33 inmates at state and county prisons in western PA, and their accomplices, with defrauding COVID-19 relief on Wednesday, August 26th. 

Brady said:

“Might be waitresses, factory workers, friends, neighbors — we all know folks who have been affected by this. Those are 10,000 people that have a right to this. That’s why the CARES Act was passed and they’re not able to because these men and women stole from them,” 

U.S. attorneys across the nation have been contacted, and it is reported that they too will soon be announcing similar charges against many inmates cheating the system out of billions of dollars in pandemic unemployment assistance from the confines of their prison cells. 

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Here is more on the original investigation Law Enforcement Today brought you in July regarding what lead up to discovering this fraud. 

ALLEGHENY COUNTY, PA – Federal agents have started an investigation into whether the inmates of Allegheny County Jail have been receiving thousands of dollars of pandemic unemployment assistance as they await trial.

The potential scam was uncovered by a county homicide detective as he listened in on a murder suspect’s phone call. For the past eight months, 48-year-old Lamont Wilford has been in jail on criminal homicide charges after allegedly beating and stomping a man to death.

A witness reportedly saw Wilford punch 50-year-old Eric Henderson to the ground and then “jump up and down” on him repeatedly. Henderson was taken to a local hospital and later died of his injuries. His cause of death was ruled as “blunt force trauma to the head.”

During his time in jail, court records show that Wilford has been the recipient of up to $9,000 in pandemic unemployment assistance. And according to recent testimony by a county homicide detective, he may not be the only inmate who has benefited from this scam.

The U.S. Attorney’s Western Pennsylvania COVID-19 Fraud Task Force, which is made up of FBI and federal and state law enforcement officials, has begun its own investigation into the matter.

Detective Steve Hitchings testified on Monday that he had learned of the fraudulent payments after listening in on a phone call between Wilford and his girlfriend.

Hitchings said:

“At which time I learned that he had been involved in a scam of the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, which he received some kind of debit card in the amount of $9,000.”

In order to qualify for pandemic unemployment assistance, one must be able to prove that they are able to work but cannot do so because of the pandemic. The Department of Labor’s guidelines for pandemic unemployment assistance states that in order to be eligible, you must be “unemployed through no fault of your own. 

In most states, this means you have to have separated from your last job due to a lack of available work.”

Hitchings went on to say that Wilford should not qualify because he is in jail, which rules him ineligible for the assistance. He also revealed that he had overheard other inmate’s phone conversations in which they too admitted to receiving assistance.

And this is not an isolated incident: In May, Maine Department of Corrections Commissioner Randall Liberty reported that $198,000 dollars in unemployment assistance had been paid out to 53 inmates.

In a letter to Commissioner Liberty, Governor Janet Mills expressed her displeasure with the news, writing:

“I not only find this appalling and to be bad public policy, I also do not believe that it was the intent of the Legislature or the Congress to allow inmates to receive state or federal benefits, including the $600 weekly PUA payment.”

The payments were stopped shortly thereafter.

In the days following the letter, Marc Sparks, an inmate at the Bolduc Correctional Facility, filed a lawsuit against the Governor, claiming:

“…Mills’s directive is entirely outside the scope of due process.”

Sparks claims that he and other inmates lost employment made possible by the Department of Correction’s work release program due to the pandemic.

In a letter from Commissioner Liberty, he wrote:

“Benefits should be reserved and prioritized for the thousands of Mainers who aren’t incarcerated who are struggling for basic necessities, such as food and rent—expenses inmates don’t have while incarcerated.”

Some officials believe that allowing inmates to receive this assistance could create dangerous situations. Wilford currently remains in jail on a $25,000 bond.

Hitchings testified that Wilford should be held without bail as he fears Wilford could use his unemployment payments to flee the state should he get free.

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