SCRANTON – The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Middle District of Pennsylvania announced that Takiyah Gordon Austin, 46, of Wilkes Barre, Pennsylvania, was indicted in a 29-year indictment on July 20, 2021, which implemented a scheme to fraudulently obtain unemployment benefits related for COVID-19 emergency aids. The case was closed on August 12, 2021 after Austin’s first appearance.
On 27 March 2020, the law on help, emergency aid and financial security for coronavirus (CARES law) was signed into law. The CARES Act created the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance Program (PUA), which provides unemployment benefits to persons who are not entitled to ordinary unemployment benefits or extended unemployment benefits, including individuals, families and businesses affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. Eligibility to receive weekly PUA benefits was based on the applicant’s unemployment for reasons related to the pandemic; however, the applicant must also have been able to work every day, and if offered a job, the applicant must have been able to say yes. Once the applicant was approved to receive benefits, the applicant had to submit weekly certificates showing that he or she: was ready, willing and able to work every day; sought full-time employment; has not turned down job offers or referrals; and had reported any employment during the week and the gross salary or other payments received.
According to acting U.S. Attorney Bruce D. Brandler, the indictment charges Austin with 21 counts of fraud, four counts of aggravated identity theft and four counts of theft of public funds. The indictment alleges that Austin, a claims specialist at the Social Security Administration, from or around May 2020 to in or around May 2021, filed PUA claims for unqualified beneficiaries. As part of the scheme, Austin filed PUA claims for unqualified individuals in return for payment from the individuals. In addition, Austin filed claims after accessing SSA databases to obtain the personally identifiable information from unsuspecting individuals and then redirected the unemployment funds to addresses she checked to use the funds for her own personal expenses. Through the scheme, Austin is alleged to have defrauded the government of over $ 288,000.
“Fighting pandemic fraud is a high priority for our office and the Department of Justice,” said acting U.S. Attorney Bruce D. Brandler. “When public officials are involved in fraud, it is particularly disappointing because public officials know all too well how much these redirected funds are needed for those who are really affected by the pandemic. I would like to thank all the law enforcement agents and prosecutors, who investigated this case, for their diligence and hard work in bringing this fraud to light. “
“An important mission of the Inspector General’s Office is to investigate allegations of fraud in connection with unemployment insurance programs,” said Syreeta Scott, acting special agent in the Philadelphia region, U.S. Department of Labor Office of Inspector General. “We will continue to work with the Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry and our law enforcement partners to protect the integrity of programs intended for unemployed U.S. workers.”
“The public trusts social security workers to handle their sensitive information and records correctly. Mrs. Gordon violated that trust in committing a fraud scheme to take advantage of COVID – related assistance at a time when so many others have a legitimate need for these funds. “I am grateful for our partnerships with the U.S. Department of Labor Office of the Inspector General and the United States Postal Inspection Service, and I thank the U.S. Attorney’s Office for their continued efforts to prosecute,” said Gail S. Ennis, Inspector General of the Social Security Administration. those who violate public confidence and commit fraud. “
The case was investigated by the Social Security Administration, the Office of the Inspector General, the Department of Labor, the Office of the Inspector General, and the United States Postal Inspection Service. Assistant U.S. Attorney Megan Curran and Assistant U.S. Attorney Alisan V. Martin are prosecuting the case.
Accusations are allegations only. All accused persons are presumed innocent, unless and until they are found guilty in court.
A verdict following a finding of guilt is judged by the judge after consideration of the applicable federal sentencing statutes and the federal sentencing guidelines.
The maximum penalty under federal fraud law is 20 years in prison. Serious identity theft entails a mandatory two-year sentence in connection with convictions handed down for other offenses. Theft of public funds carries a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison. All three charges could also result in a fine and a period of supervised release after imprisonment. Under the federal sentencing guidelines, the judge is also required to consider and weigh a number of factors, including the nature, circumstances, and seriousness of the offense; defendant’s history and characteristics; and the need to punish the defendant, protect the public, and provide for the defendant’s educational, professional, and medical needs. For these reasons, the statutory maximum penalty for the offense is not an accurate indicator of the potential penalty for a particular defendant.
On May 17, 2021, Attorney General COVID-19 created the Fraud Enforcement Task Force to pool the resources of the Department of Justice in partnership with agencies across government to increase efforts to combat and prevent pandemic-related fraud. The Task Force strengthens efforts to investigate and prosecute the most guilty domestic and international criminal actors and assists agencies tasked with administering emergency programs to prevent fraud, by, among other things, expanding and integrating existing coordination mechanisms, identifying resources and techniques for detecting fraudulent actors and their schemes and the sharing and exploitation of information and insights gained from previous enforcement efforts. For more information on the department’s response to the pandemic, please visit https://www.justice.gov/coronavirus.
Anyone with information about allegations of fraud involving COVID-19 can report it by calling the Department of Justice’s National Center for Disaster Fraud (NCDF) Hotline at 866-720-5721 or via the NCDF Web Complaint Form at: https://www.justice.gov/disaster-fraud/ncdf-disaster-complaint-form.
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