SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CBS13/AP) — A California prison inmate pleaded guilty Monday to conspiring to steal more than $100,000 in unemployment benefits designed to help those who lost their jobs during the coronavirus pandemic — one of numerous such thefts that authorities say have totaled more than $810 million.
Alana Powers, 45, an inmate at the Central California Women's Facility in Chowchilla, and Jason Vertz, 51, of Fresno, each pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit mail fraud and aggravated identity theft.
Prosecutors said emails and recorded phone calls show Powers and other prison inmates provided Vertz with the personal identifying information he needed to submit the unemployment applications.
The applications said the inmates had worked as maids, cleaners, welders and in other occupations. However, none were eligible for the benefits because they were in prison.
Powers and Vertz could each face more than 20 years in prison when they are sentenced on July 6.
Two state audits earlier this year said multiple mistakes by the state Employment Development Department allowed massive fraud that included paying benefits to prison inmates, including some on California's death row.
California lawmakers are advancing legislation that would require the department to crosscheck unemployment applications with inmate records to identify fraudulent claims — something auditors said is already done by at least 35 other states.
In December 2020, a state official said California sent out about $400 million in fraudulent unemployment benefit payments to state prisoners, nearly triple the amount initially disclosed.
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