The U.S. Attorney's Office for the Eastern District of California have charged several individuals with a scheme that took hundreds of thousands of dollars from the state Employment Development Department that were meant for residents hit hardest by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Some of those charged in the scheme include inmates at the Central California Women’s Facility in Chowchilla.
On Thursday, a federal grand jury in Fresno returned an indictment against inmate Sholanda Thomas, 36, and parolee Christina Smith, 37. The two women were indicted 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 show that Thomas and others engaged in “bundling,” that is, they obtained the names, dates of birth, and social security numbers for inmates at CCWF and relayed that information to Smith to submit the fraudulent claims. The claims were submitted shortly thereafter, and the benefits were loaded onto debit cards that were mailed to the addresses provided.
The underlying applications for the claims falsely stated that the inmates had worked within the prescribed period as hairstylists, barbers, and other occupations, and that they were available to work, which was not true because they were incarcerated. The claims would have been denied if accurate answers had been given. EDD and the United States have suffered a loss of over $200,000 as a result of the fraud.
Thomas and Smith used the proceeds for their own benefit, which included Smith keeping Thomas’ share in a shoebox pending Thomas’ release from prison, and Smith getting plastic surgery, according to the Department of Justice.
In the second scheme, Andrea M. Gervais, 43, of Roseville – a former Employment Development Department employee – allegedly participated in a mail fraud scheme involving approximately 100 fraudulent Pandemic Unemployment Assistance claims in the names of persons other than Gervais. According to the criminal complaint, at least 12 of the 100 claims were processed for payment, and over $200,000 in PUA benefits were paid out to Gervais’s Roseville address in the form of Bank of America debit cards. The total value of all fraudulent PUA claims from her residence was at least $2 million.
The investigation began when investigators discovered a PUA claim using the identity of a sitting United States Senator for approximately $21,000. This fraudulent claim was processed for payment, and Gervais received a PUA debit card in the United States Senator’s name. Investigators further discovered that Bank of America ATM cameras captured Gervais on multiple occasions withdrawing cash from at least seven of the PUA debit cards, and at least one captured transaction showed Gervais using the debit card issued to the United States Senator.
Anyone with information about attempted fraud involving COVID-19 can report it by calling the Department of Justice’s National Center for Disaster Fraud Hotline at 866‑720‑5721 or via the NCDF Web Complaint Form at: https://www.justice.gov/disaster-fraud/ncdf-disaster-complaint-form.