4 accused of getting pandemic jobless benefits for inmates in Virginia

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NORFOLK, Va. (AP/WAVY) — Prosecutors say a federal grand jury has indicted four people for their roles in a scheme to use the identities of 35 Virginia prison inmates to secure more than $300,000 in pandemic-related unemployment benefits.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office in Virginia says two women — Mary Benton, 38, of Portsmouth, and Angelica Cartwright-Powers, 35, of Norfolk — worked with two inmates at correctional institutions to collect information of other inmates to apply for the unemployment benefits.

Two men — Michael Lee Lewis Jr., 41, and Michael Anthony White, 38, both of Chesapeake — who were serving time are accused of providing information for inmates where they serving time.

Officials say the four people charged and the prisoners whose IDs were used shared more than $334,000.

officials said Benton allegedly submitted successful applications for Virginia unemployment benefits for 31 inmates at three Virginia correctional facilities.

While the Virginia Employment Commission expanded its unemployment benefits during the coronavirus pandemic, inmates remained ineligible for them. Authorities said each application that Benton and Cartwright-Powers submitted allegedly “contained numerous false statements” about the inmates’ contact information and last employer, and that they were ready and willing to work.

Benton is charged with one count of conspiracy, three counts of fraud in connection with major disaster benefits, and three counts of mail fraud. Lewis and White are each charged with one count of conspiracy and two counts of mail fraud. Cartwright-Powers is charged with one count of conspiracy, one count of fraud in connection with major disaster benefits, and one count of mail fraud.

“Fraudulently exploiting COVID-19 relief funds for personal gain is unconscionable,” said Joseph V. Cuffari, Inspector General for the Department of Homeland Security. “Today’s indictment sends a clear message that DHS OIG will fully investigate fraud affecting FEMA funds and continue to work with our law enforcement partners to bring an end to these schemes.”

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