SCRANTON – The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Middle District of Pennsylvania has announced that Takiyah Gordon Austin, age 46, of Wilkes Barre, Pennsylvania, has been indicted on July 20, 2021 in a 29-count indictment, who is conducting a scheme to investigate fraudulent how to obtain unemployment benefits related to COVID-19 relief funds. The case was unsealed on August 12, 2021, after Austin’s first appearance.
On March 27, 2020, the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES Act) came into effect. The CARES Act created the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) program, which provides unemployment benefits to individuals who are not eligible for regular unemployment benefits or extended unemployment benefits, including individuals, families and businesses affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. Eligibility for 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 a job is offered, the applicant must have been able to accept it. After the applicant was approved to receive benefits, the applicant was required to submit weekly certifications showing that he or she: was ready, willing and able to work every day; was looking for a full-time job; has not declined any vacancies or referrals; and had reported working during the week and gross wages or other payments received.
According to acting U.S. Attorney Bruce D. Brandler, the indictment charges Austin on 21 counts of wire fraud, four counts of aggravated identity theft and four counts of government money theft. The indictment alleges that Austin, a claims specialist with the Social Security Administration, filed PUA claims for ineligible recipients from in or about May 2020 through or about May 2021. As part of the settlement, Austin has filed PUA claims for ineligible individuals in return for payment from the individuals. In addition, Austin filed claims after opening SSA databases to obtain the personal identification information of unsuspecting individuals and then redirecting the unemployment funds to addresses she controlled to use the funds for her own personal expenses. Under the scheme, Austin would have defrauded the government of more than $288,000.
“Fighting pandemic fraud is a high priority for our office and the Department of Justice,” said Acting US Attorney Bruce D. Brandler. “If officials are involved in the fraud, it is particularly disappointing because officials know all too well how much these diverted funds are needed for those really affected by the pandemic. I would like to thank all law enforcement officers and prosecutors who have investigated this case for their dedication and hard work in exposing this fraud.”
“A major mission of the Office of Inspector General is to investigate allegations of fraud related to unemployment insurance programs,” said Syreeta Scott, acting special commander of the Philadelphia region of the United States Department of Labor’s 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 aimed at unemployed American workers.”
“The public trusts Social Security employees to handle their sensitive information and records appropriately. Ms. Gordon has violated that trust by executing a fraud plan to take advantage of COVID-related aid at a time when so many others have a legitimate need for those funds,” said Gail S. Ennis, Inspector General of the Social Security Administration. “I am grateful for our cooperation with the U.S. Department of Labor’s Inspector General and the U.S. Postal Inspectorate, and I thank the U.S. Department of Justice for their continued efforts to prosecute those who violate the public’s trust and commit fraud. “
The case was investigated by the Social Security Administration, the Office of Inspector General, the Department of Labor, the Office of Inspector General and the United States Postal Inspection Service. United States Special Assistant Attorney Megan Curran and Assistant United States Attorney Alisan V. Martin are pursuing the case.
Charges are just accusations. All indicted persons are presumed innocent unless and until found guilty in court.
A guilty plea sentence is imposed by the judge after reviewing applicable federal criminal laws and federal criminal guidelines.
The maximum penalty under federal law for wire fraud is 20 years in prison. Aggravated identity theft carries a mandatory two-year prison term, in addition to penalties imposed for other offences. Theft of government money carries a maximum penalty of 10 years. All three charges also carry fines and a term of supervised release after jail time. Federal sentencing guidelines also require the judge to consider and weigh a number of factors, including the nature, circumstances, and seriousness of the offense; the history and characteristics of the suspect; and the need to punish the accused, protect the public and provide for the accused’s educational, occupational and medical needs. For these reasons, the statutory maximum penalty for the offense is not a good indication of the possible penalty for a particular suspect.
On May 17, 2021, the Attorney General established the COVID-19 Fraud Enforcement Task Force to pool the resources of the Department of Justice in partnership with government agencies to strengthen efforts to fight and prevent pandemic fraud. The Task Force is strengthening efforts to investigate and prosecute the most culpable domestic and international criminal actors and assist agencies charged with managing emergency programs to prevent fraud, including by expanding and incorporating existing coordination mechanisms, resources and identifying techniques to detect fraudulent actors and their schemes, and sharing and leveraging information and insights gained from past enforcement efforts. For more information on the Department’s response to the pandemic, visit https://www.justice.gov/coronavirus.
Anyone with information about allegations of attempted 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 using the NCDF web complaint form at: https://www. .justice.gov/disaster-fraud/ncdf-disaster-complaint-form.
# # #