Jason Vertz, 51, of Fresno, and Alana Powers, 45, an inmate at the Central California Women’s Facility in Chowchilla, pleaded guilty on Monday morning to charges stemming from a COVID-19 unemployment fraud investigation.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office said in a news release that the fraud totaled $103,000. State Auditor Elaine Howle said in January that California has paid at least $810 million in fraudulent benefits to prison inmates, more than double the amount previously thought.
In addition, California lawmakers last week advanced a bill requiring EDD and the state prison system to share information aimed at helping stop billions of dollars in pandemic-related unemployment fraud.
At least 35 other states were cross-matching unemployment claims against state prisoners as of 2016, and 28 states were checking claims against county jail inmates, the audit noted.
How the Scam Worked
According to court documents, Vertz and Powers submitted fraudulent unemployment insurance claims in the names of Powers and other inmates. Recorded jail calls and emails showed that Powers and other inmates provided names, birth dates, and social security numbers to Vertz for those claims. EDD then loaded benefits onto debit cards mailed to the addresses the defendants provided.
On those claims, the inmates stated they had worked as maids, cleaners, fabrication welders, and other occupations, and were available to work. That, of course, wasn’t true because they were imprisoned.
Vertz and Powers are scheduled for sentencing in Fresno federal court on July 6. They face up to 20 years in prison and $250,000 fines.
The FBI, state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, the EDD conducted the investigation.
Assistant U.S. Attorneys Alexandre Dempsey and Joseph Barton are prosecuting the case.