Unemployment benefits are essential to many people's survival with so many out of work. When a suspected unemployment insurance fraud ring was discovered operating from a Sarepta business, a joint state task force went into action.
Eight of 23 suspects were arrested with the assistance of Webster Parish Sheriff's Office as part of a joint Louisiana Workforce Commission (LWC) and Louisiana Attorney General's Office taskforce fighting unemployment fraud.
"It's something we are ecstatic about," an LWC spokesperson said. "It's part of our ongoing objective to crack down on people that are defrauding the unemployment insurance system."
The eight arrest dates, suspect names and suspected fraud amounts are:
November 10 – Kevin Robinson of Springhill, $6,214
November 15 – Laquetta Richardson of Cullen, $33,486
November 16 – Mary A. Epps of Cullen, $10,583
November 22 – Sharonda Oliver of Springhill, $10,957
November 22 – Ronnie Scott of Springhill, $25,488
November 29 – Jerry Sumlin of Cullen, $27,227
December 6 – Kizzy M. Ivy of Cullen, $20,033
December 7 – Vernon L. Nelams of Springhill, $13,391
WPSO made the arrests and booked the suspects into Bayou Dorcheat Correctional Facility. Investigators from the AG's office then took custody and transferred them to East Baton Rouge Prison.
The search for 15 additional suspects is ongoing. Their warrants and information have been entered into FBI's National Crime Information Center database.
"All are accused of claiming unemployment insurance benefits while working, but failing to report their earnings," an LWC release read.
Currently, 60 arrests have been made across the state for a total of $606,506 in suspected fraud.
LWC seeks to prevent, detect and prosecute fraud in the unemployment insurance system through multiple means.
Wage and tax filings, unemployment insurance and workers' compensation claims, new hire listings and other similar data are examined.
Information is shared with the Louisiana Department of Children and Family Services, Louisiana Department of Revenue, Secretary of State's office, Department of Corrections and Office of Motor Vehicles.
Data are then analyzed for fraud using various methods, including sophisticated computer systems to identify potential fraud that would otherwise be very difficult to detect.
"The fact that all of those arrested or wanted in the Sarepta fraud ring were working at the same company underscores the need for employers to be active participants in decisions about unemployment claims filed against them," LWC Executive Director Curt Eysink said.
The Sarepta business is not suspected of involvement and has been assisting in the ongoing process, according to LWC Director of Unemployment Insurance Administration Suzy Sonnier.
"Employers have the means available to them to help us stop this kind of fraud almost immediately," Eysink said.
Employers should notify LWC of new hires or new separations. They should also review their quarterly statement and report anything suspicious.
Claimants should also be sure their information is all in order.
"If claimants do not properly disclose earnings, intentionally or unintentionally, they are committing fraud," the release read.
Unemployment insurance fraud can be charged as a felony theft, which carries a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison with or without hard labor and a maximum fine of $3,000, and/or insurance fraud, which carries a maximum penalty of five years in prison with or without hard labor and/or a maximum fine $5,000.
Repayment of funds is also required and can weight in favor of the claimant if done before prosecution. Payment plans can be arranged as long as payments are made on time, according to LWC.
"People who commit this kind of fraud should know that we will discover their crime and we will pursue them," Eysink said. "We keep developing new and faster ways to detect fraud and our partnership with the attorney general is landing the crooks in handcuffs."
Claimants who are unsure how to report earnings, need assistance with reporting, or want to establish a repayment plan for overpayment of unemployment benefits should contact the Unemployment Insurance Claim Center at 1-866-783-5567.