Lassen County District Attorney Susan Melyssah Rios, who also serves as an EDD Fraud Task Force Leader investigating the alleged massive unemployment insurance fraud by local, state and federal inmates in custody in California, said she couldn’t provide any specific details about any of the ongoing investigations, but she said, “We’re seeing inmates statewide, county level also, connecting with individuals on the outside, giving them their personal identifying information. They go to EDD and fill out a five question questionnaire on the EDD website … and they get these benefits.”
Rios said EDD doesn’t crossmatch those applying for benefits with those who are incarcerated in state prison, “so they’re rubber stamping the claims and the money is going to these addresses outside the prison. We’re seeing multiple claims sent to the same address, and some of the money is being sent back to the inmate.”
While unemployment benefits are normally connected to an insurance policy by your employer, Rios said benefit payments were approved to people named John Doe and Poopie Britches.
“Out of Lassen County we have about 16 folks under state commitment that popped up on our list,” Rios said, “but the majority of the claims that are filed at High Desert and CCC — all the money is being sent out of county. It’s not coming here.”
Rios said that’s because inmates are generally not housed in the counties in which they were convicted.
“It’s happening statewide and at all county jails,” Rios said.
The matter has apparently gotten the attention of California Governor Gavin Newsom, who has promised to provide some resources.
“It’s projected to be about $1 billion once we get all the information from the subpoenas,” Rios said.
Rios said a lieutenant at HDSP discovered the fraud and brought it to her and asked “if she could put some feelers out and see if it’s happening in other places.”
Rios said she put the word out asking other district attorneys if their counties were experiencing the same type of fraud.
The first response came from Amador County, the DA there was able to get help from the U.S. Attorneys Office, but the state attorney general wasn’t interested.
Rios then reached out to the U.S. Attorney who serves the North State, “but he’s just the drug guy, he’s not the white collar financial guy.”
But Rios’ concerns gained traction and soon she started getting emails from federal and state law enforcement officials, “and we recognized how rampant this fraud was.”
In San Mateo County, a detective listening to inmate phone calls overheard inmates giving out their personal information.
“They were very flagrant about it,” Rios said. “They were like, ‘Hey, here’s my information,’ and ‘Everybody’s doing it. You fill out the form, we’ll get the money, and I’ll split it with you when I get out, and we’ll party.’ It’s on their recorded jail calls. They don’t care.”
Rios said, “So that’s how it started back in March, but we didn’t recognize the magnitude of it until August. The investigations are underway now, and we’re trying to get a grip on it.”
But despite being considered one of the early whistleblowers, Rios said the credit should really go to the lieutenant at HDSP who initially brought the matter to her attention.
According to a post on the Lassen County District Attorney’s Facebook page, “The fact that these claims were paid without even checking employment history or dates of incarceration and continue to be paid, meanwhile legitimate hardworking taxpayers who have had to shutter their businesses during this pandemic have had their claims delayed or denied is offensive.
“The state was aware of the suspected fraud yet the governor remained more concerned with the early release of these inmates and imposing arbitrary and facially unenforceable ‘orders,’ like his most recent curfew. It was only after our office along with nine other DAs penned a letter detailing the fraud and a press conference was held yesterday that we finally have his attention, and he has pledged state resources to help combat this issue.
“We are appreciative to the investigative assistance of HDSP ISU, CCC ISU, the Lassen County Sheriff, the Eastern District US Attorney, Sacramento County District Attorney, and the El Dorado County District Attorney.”