Ten people have been arrested this week on counts related to unemployment insurance fraud, which could net them up to 10 years in prison and fines of up to $3,000.
The arrests are the start of a statewide effort by the Louisiana Workforce Commission (LWC) and Louisiana Attorney General’s (AG’s) Office to crack down on unemployment insurance fraud. The individuals arrested as part of “Operation Spring Cleaning” are accused of defrauding the unemployment insurance trust fund of anywhere from $6,152 to $24,614 in unemployment insurance benefits. Much of the fraud involves people continuing to claim benefits after starting a new job.
Those arrested by the AG’s fugitive task force were transported to Baton Rouge and booked with felony theft over $1,500. The maximum penalty is 10 years in prison with or without hard labor and a fine of $3,000. More arrests are expected.
“We don't tolerate fraud. Period. Claiming benefits that are not owed is nothing more than a way to steal from the system and the businesses that pay taxes to support it. I hope that Operation Spring Cleaning sends a loud, clear message that trying to rip off the unemployment insurance system doesn't pay,” said Curt Eysink, LWC executive director. "Unemployment benefits are intended to help people go back to work. Operation Spring Cleaning is putting the crooks in jail.”
Those arrested so far, along with the total amount of fraudulent unemployment benefits received:
- Calvin Bridges, 2600 St. Ann Street, New Orleans, $12,314
- Troy C. Evans, 957 Whitlow Court, LaPlace, $9,490
- Alisa A. Gilmore, 1523 Savannah, Slidell, $6,818
- Clifton D. Hawkins, 1917 Betty Street, Marrero, $8,952
- Chermaine Lewis, 6907 Barrington Court, New Orleans, $6,152
- Kenyatta J. Long, 4520 Williams Blvd., Apt. C221, Kenner, $10,130
- Kevin Lucas, 6566 Parc Manor Drive, Metairie, $24,614
- Godrey M. Mickens, 21 Winner Circle, New Orleans, $9,412
- Anthony D Reddix, Jr., 7001 Bundy Road, Apt. L23, New Orleans, $7,324
- Alicia Thomas, 4517 Shalimar Drive, New Orleans, $9,060
The recent arrests are from the greater New Orleans area, but Operation Spring Cleaning is a statewide initiative that will include arrests from across Louisiana.
Attorney General Buddy Caldwell said, “For the hardworking citizens of our state who have the misfortune of being laid off during tough economic times, unemployment insurance benefits can be crucial to their family’s survival. However, a few ‘rotten apples’ can spoil the barrel. Those who are defrauding the unemployment system are stealing from Louisiana taxpayers each year. With these arrests, we are sending a message that ‘fraud equals theft’ and we are coming after the perpetrators. We look forward to working with the Louisiana Workforce Commission as a partner in the continued detection and prosecution of these criminals.”
The arrests are the latest tool in an arsenal used by the LWC to collect unemployment overpayments. Once an overpayment is detected, the LWC contacts the recipient to make arrangements for restitution. Overpayments made as a result of fraud also result in a denial of unemployment benefits for one year and the overpaid amount is offset from future legitimate unemployment benefits that the defrauder may otherwise be entitled to receive. State income tax refunds are garnished until the overpayment is repaid, and the LWC also is working with the IRS to institute a system that targets federal income tax refunds.
Unemployment insurance claimants are responsible for the accuracy of all of their answers when filing a claim. Each week while someone is receiving benefits, they must attest that they did not work during the previous week, or, if they did work, they must report their earnings. Cash wages, part-time job wages, temporary job wages, and self employment wages must be reported for the week in which they were earned, even if payment has not been received.
"Significant improvements to the LWC unemployment insurance system are enabling far quicker and more comprehensive detection of fraud, and our partnership with the Attorney General's Office is enabling aggressive action to catch the perpetrators," Eysink said.
Claimants who have committed fraud by theft of unemployment benefits may contact the LWC Overpayment Department (1-866-783-5567) to establish a repayment plan. Once a plan is established, payments must be made on time. Repayment of benefits prior to prosecution may not guarantee that no further action will be taken. Each case will be reviewed on a case-by-case basis by the AG’s Office and the LWC.
In addition to the fraud detection and prosecution measures, the LWC also has ramped up fraud prevention efforts, including cross-checking unemployment claimant information against the National Directory of New Hires. Federal and state law requires employers to report newly hired and re-hired employees in Louisiana to the Louisiana Directory of New Hires, and that data feeds into a national directory. Employers can report their hires by logging on to http://newhire-reporting.com/LA-Newhire/default.aspx.
"It is critical that employers quickly report all new hires to the National Directory of New Hires. That could enable us to stop fraud before benefit payments are ever made," Eysink said.
Employers also should ensure that the wage records they submit quarterly are complete and accurate, as they also enable better fraud detection. Failure to do so may result in penalties against employers.
To report suspected unemployment fraud, go to the LWC website, www.laworks.net, and select Unemployment Insurance in the upper right corner of the home page. The “Report Fraud” link on that webpage opens a fillable form that can be faxed or mailed to the LWC Benefit Payment Control Unit.
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