SACRAMENTO, Calif. — A far-reaching scam swindled the state of California out of hundreds of millions of dollars in COVID-19 relief funds by filing fraudulent pandemic unemployment claims in the names of inmates, more than 100 of whom are sitting on death row.
A law enforcement task force, comprised of nine district attorneys across the state and a federal prosecutor, made the allegations public on Tuesday in a letter to Gov. Gavin Newsom, asking for “significant resources” to combat “what appears to be the most significant fraud on taxpayer funds in California history,” The New York Times reported.
According to the task force, fraudulent claims have been paid under the names of tens of thousands of incarcerated Californians.
The Los Angeles Times reported that high-profile inmates for whom records show unemployment checks or debit cards were issued through the state’s pandemic relief system include:
• Scott Peterson, a San Quentin inmate convicted in 2004 of killing his wife and unborn son.
• Carl Stayner, a convicted serial killer who murdered two women and two girls near Yosemite in 1999.
• Isauro Aguirre, who was sentenced to death in 2018 for the torture and killing of 8-year-old Gabriel Fernandez.
The task force indicated that while some of the fraudulently obtained unemployment funds were sent directly to penal institutions, the majority were issued via prepaid debit cards “to addresses designated on the applications, with the proceeds later deposited to inmate accounts in jail and prisons,” The New York Times reported.
Sacramento County district attorney Anne Marie Schubert, who assumed chairmanship of the task force in October, called the scope of the fraud a “behemoth” and noted, “It’s not just happening here.”
The task force also acknowledged in its letter to Newsom uncertainty regarding whether the high-profile claimants were participants in the fraud or victims, Pat Harris, Peterson’s attorney, said he was “absolutely certain Scott was not involved, and any investigation will clear him,” the Los Angeles Times reported.
Among the specific malfeasance alleged in the letter were identity theft of prisoners and conspiracies by both individual inmates and organized gangs “to game the state system,” the newspaper reported.
“It is a manifest problem that cannot be ignored, and the governor needs to take steps to address it,” said McGregor Scott, U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of California.
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