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Authorities are Investigating $1.5 Million of Unemployment Insurance Claims Filed by Inmates of Mendocino and Humboldt County Jails

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[Stock image from the Employment Development Department]

As the State of California navigates $11 billion worth of confirmed unemployment insurance fraud, Mendocino and Humboldt County authorities are investigating what could be as much as $1.5 million worth of fraud estimated to have been committed by county jail inmates.

On January 26, 2021, the State of California’s Employment Development Department confirmed that the state paid out a total of $114 billion since the pandemic began. 10% of those claims were confirmed to have been paid out to fraudulent claims, amounting to about $11 billion. 

Mendocino County Sheriff Matt Kendall said he first became alerted to potentially fraudulent activity amongst county jail inmates by Bruce Smith, the Chief Investigator for the Lake County District Attorney’s Office. Since becoming aware of the racket, Sheriff Kendall said investigators have determined approximately $500,000 of fraudulent insurance claims can be traced back to inmates of the Mendocino County Jail.

Sheriff Kendall suggested a number of the fraudsters within Mendocino County Jail are in fact state prisoners housed there due to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation’s COVID-19 protocols. 

Mike Geniella, the spokesman for Mendocino County District Attorney David Eyster, said “The Mendo DA is part of a Northern California Task Force of District Attorneys who are making sure the EDD fraud is investigated. Local prosecutions are anticipated to follow.” Geniella said DA Eyster is “not discussing specifics of the suspected Mendocino County cases because they are part and parcel of an open and ongoing set of law enforcement criminal investigations.”

Humboldt County District Attorney Maggie Flemming said, “​Our investigation has revealed that there has been 1 million dollars paid to inmates at the Humboldt County Correctional Facility.  We are investigating how much of that is fraudulent.”

When asked how an incarcerated individual could make an authentic unemployment insurance claim, District Attorney Flemming explained the timing of the inmate’s incarceration and the filing of the claim determines the claim’s authenticity: “The investigation must include when the claim was made and whether or not the person was in custody at that time. So we used a current list for all inmates to see who had received funds from EDD.  But of course, if they were paid in May and not in custody until November they might have legitimately received the benefit.”

Trinity County Sheriff Tim Saxon said that “We are not currently working any cases related to EDD fraud. Trinity County Detention Facility is small compared to the majority of the facilities in California.”

Chief Investigator for the Lake County District Attorney’s Office Bruce Smith provided an overview of how county jail inmates were able to defraud the Employment Development Department. He said investigators first learned of fraud while “listening to jail phone calls” in which inmates would provide their information (name, address, birthday, social security number) to “someone on the outside” such as an inmate’s friend or family member.

Smith explained the non-incarcerated individual would use the information to file for unemployment insurance on the EDD website, receive the payments, and deposit money in the inmate’s jail commissary account, or in some cases, just hold the money until their release.

As soon as Lake County investigators began to recognize the extent of the problem, Smith said they reached out to Mendocino, Solano, Napa, and other nearby counties to alert them of the potential fraud. He added, “nobody realized the magnitude of the fraud before people started looking.”

Smith said at the beginning of the pandemic, “EDD took their word. There were no checks and balances. They didn’t even require a driver’s license at the beginning.”

Smith and other Lake County investigators determined that between July-August 2020, one-third of the Lake County Jail inmates were filing for unemployment insurance amounting to approximately $300,000 in claims.

A challenge Smith and other investigators have faced with investigating the crimes is the reality that “inmates cannot be interviewed without legal representation.” Rather than directly interviewing inmates about the potential fraud, Smith said investigators have had to rely on analyzing jail phone conversation where inmates were heard being “pretty open and upfront” about filing the claims overtly telling their partners on the outside to “file my EDD.”

Smith said one inmate his agency was investigating received nearly $31,000 in unemployment insurance from EDD. 

EDD’s failure to screen unemployment applications for unusual information was demonstrated to Smith when investigators found four different inmates from around California using the same San Francisco residential address to sign up for unemployment insurance.

And for now, Mendocino and Humboldt County will continue to investigate the $1.5 million of unemployment insurance claims to determine whether any inmates filed them fraudulently.

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Matt LaFever
Matt LaFeverhttps://mendofever.com/
I like to think of myself as a journalist for the everyman. Journalism has become a craft practiced by the urban elite. It’s time to take it back. I have been an Emerald Triangle resident since 2006 and this is year ten in Mendocino County. Please, email me at matthewplafever@gmail.com if you know a story that needs told.

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