published on December 18, 2020 - 2:23 PM
Written by The Business Journal Staff

Hundreds of thousands of dollars have allegedly been fraudulently taken in two separate schemes that targeted California Employment Development Department (EDD) unemployment insurance benefits that were intended for Californians hit by the ongoing shutdown.

According to U.S. Attorney McGregor W. Scott, one of these schemes was carried out by inmates of the Central California Women’s Facility (CCWF) in Chowchilla. The benefits involved billions of dollars in federal subsidies that have been significantly increased through the Pandemic Unemployment Assist (PUA) program of the CARES Act.

“The U.S. Attorney’s Office is committed to the mission of combating fraud that abuses the provisions of the CARES Act,” said U.S. Attorney Scott. “We will work with every major law enforcement agency to investigate and prosecute the fraud arising out of the pandemic. This theft of taxpayer dollars intended to assist our citizens in a very difficult economic time simply will not be tolerated.”

On Thursday, a federal grand jury in Fresno indicted inmate Sholanda Thomas, 36, and parolee Christina Smith for conspiracy to commit mail fraud and aggravated identity theft charges for the submission of several fraudulent EDD unemployment insurance claims in Thomas’ and other CCWF inmates’ names. Recorded jail calls and emails reportedly show that Thomas engaged in “bundling,” or obtaining names, dates of birth and social security numbers for inmates and relayed that information to Smith to submit the claims. They were submitted shortly thereafter and the benefits were loaded onto debit cards and mailed to addresses provided.

If convicted, Thomas and Smith face a maximum statutory penalty of 20 years in prison for conspiracy to commit mail fraud and a mandatory, additional sentence of two years if convicted of aggravated identity theft. Each defendant also faces a maximum fine of $250 on each count.

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