4 accused of getting pandemic jobless benefits for inmates

Virginia News

NORFOLK, Va. (AP) — A federal grand jury has indicted four people for their roles in a scheme to use the identities of 35 Virginia prison inmates to secure more than $300,000 in pandemic-related unemployment benefits, federal authorities said Friday.

Two women worked with two inmates at correctional institutions to collect information of other inmates to apply for the unemployment benefits, according to a news release from the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Virginia. The two men who were serving time were accused of providing information for inmates where they were incarcerated, according to the news release.

The four people charged and the prisoners whose IDs were used shared about $335,000, prosecutors said.

Although the conspirators initially obtained $436,834, the Virginia Employment Commission was able to reclaim some of that after discovering the fraud, according to the news release.

Mary Benton, 38, of Portsmouth, and Angelica Cartwright-Powers, 35, of Norfolk, face multiple charges, as do inmates Michael Lee Lewis, Jr., 41, of Chesapeake, and Michael Anthony White, 38, also of Chesapeake.

If convicted, the conspirators face a maximum of five years in prison on a conspiracy charge and 30 years in prison on each fraud charge.

Attorneys for Benton and Cartwright-Powers declined comment.

Court records show both Benton and Cartwright-Powers are scheduled to be arraigned April 19. The records do not list attorneys for Lewis or White who could comment.

The charges mark the latest in a series of criminal cases brought in Virginia over unemployment fraud, which has been widespread across the country amid the pandemic. A review by The Associated Press last month found many states had failed to adequately safeguard their systems and some would not publicly acknowledge the extent of the problem.

In Virginia, court records in a different employment fraud case revealed in February that the state had paid out more than $40 million in benefits to individuals who submitted claims on behalf of inmates.

Joyce Fogg, a spokeswoman for the Virginia Employment Commission, said Friday that the agency estimates $50 million in fraudulent claims have been paid, with $7 million recouped. That’s a small fraction of the over $12 billion in benefits the agency said earlier this week it has paid out during the pandemic.

The indictment announced Friday provides some details about how the commission has handled investigating cases of inmate-related fraud.

The agency began reviewing claims to identify potentially fraudulent ones under the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program in June, according to the indictment.

By August, the commission had learned from other states that inmates in correctional facilities were receiving unemployment benefits and consequently obtained a list of inmates housed by the Virginia Department of Corrections. It cross-matched the Virginia unemployment insurance claims to people who were shown to be claimants on the inmate list, according to the indictment.

“In November 2020, once a review of the data showed how the fraud scheme was unfolding, the VEC froze all claims made on behalf of VADOC inmates,” the indictment said.

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