As plots emerge inside California prisons and jails to scam pandemic unemployment benefits, district attorneys are calling on state leaders to help them stop, investigate and prosecute the fraud. “It’s a tsunami,” said Sacramento County District Attorney Anne Marie Schubert, who fears the money stolen could be contributing to crime on the street. “Ultimately the bottom line is we need help.” Several district attorneys interviewed by the Los Angeles Times said they are frustrated that state officials, including Attorney General Xavier Becerra, have not taken leadership in what some have described as the biggest taxpayer fraud in California history. Especially troublesome to some is that state agencies continue to grapple with how to share information with investigators such as Social Security numbers that are needed to pinpoint inmates applying for benefits, a system used in 35 other states to prevent abuse.
Gov. Gavin Newsom’s administration said a permanent legal solution to allow data sharing is being worked on. It could involve a change of state law or regulations at the prison agency. In a letter to eight prosecutors who went public with the fraud involving inmates, Newsom said that the problem appeared on his radar screen three months ago. Prosecutors contend that without immediate action to allow investigators to compare unemployment claims against inmate rolls, their hands are tied, potentially leaving money flowing from prison gangs to street gangs involved in drugs, guns and other crimes. Although some fraud may have been perpetrated by individuals, much of it appears to be organized, with multiple payments going to the same address. “We are finding that the gangs are heavy, deep into this,” said Amador County District Attorney Todd Riebe. Some 500 inmates at Mule Creek State Prison in his county may be involved in more than $2 million in fraudulent claims.