Ex-EDD employee previously convicted of benefits fraud to plead guilty in COVID relief scam

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A California Employment Development Department building is seen in a photo posted on the agency’s Flickr account in September 2018.

A Perris woman who previously served time for defrauding the California Employment Development Department while working for the state agency will admit to her role in another scheme that netted more than $1.6 million in pandemic relief funds, prosecutors said Wednesday.

Gabriela Llerenas, aka “Maria G. Sandoval,” 49, will plead guilty to one count of mail fraud under an agreement with prosecutors filed Wednesday, the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Los Angeles said in a news release.

Llerenas formerly worked at the state EDD handling disability insurance claims, but she resigned in March 2002 after admitting to authorizing and paying out bogus disability benefits. She was sentenced to 37 months in federal prison in that case, prosecutors said.

In the latest scam, Llerenas is accused of being involved in the filing of almost 200 fake claims for coronavirus-related jobless aid.

Llerenas allegedly exploited expanded eligibility for unemployment insurance under the CARES Act, which was meant to help people who didn’t usually qualify like business owners, self-employed workers and independent contractors.

Prosecutors say the fraudulent claims filed from April to October last year often stated the person worked as a cake decorator or event attendant, or in another profession that struggled because of the pandemic.

California struggled to process the millions of claims submitted as businesses statewide were suddenly shuttered by stay-at-home orders. The state has acknowledged the Employment Development Department was bilked out of hundreds of millions of dollars that went to fraudsters, including inmates.

Llerenas admitted that she sometimes filed at least a dozen bogus EDD claims a day. She used her prior work as a tax preparer to access the names, Social Security numbers and other information she used for claimants, officials said.

The claims she filed resulted in the EDD authorizing Bank of America to mail 197 debit cards to addresses Llerenas listed, which included her home, her husband’s business, her mother’s apartment and the homes of other relatives and friends, according to prosecutors.

In some cases people paid her to file an application, and often the money was skimmed from the illegally obtained aid. She told at least one person she still worked for the EDD and demanded more money for “releasing” the benefits, court documents show.

Llerenas is scheduled to appear in court Sept. 22.

If convicted as charged, she could face up to 20 years in federal prison.

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