Prison inmate, San Bernardino man charged with stealing more than $500K in CA jobless benefits scam

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One of two convicted felons accused of running a fraud scheme while they were inmates at a Southern California prison that stole more than $500,000 in unemployment benefits pleaded not guilty to multiple charges Monday.

Brandon Christopher Avery, 28, of San Bernardino was arrested last week following a months-long investigation that also identified 27-year-old Donald Marshawn Peer, a current inmate at Ironwood State Prison in Blythe, as an alleged co-conspirator, the Riverside County District Attorney’s Office said in a news release.

Avery was charged with 48 counts of filing false affidavits to obtain government benefits, while Peer is charged with 16 related counts.

According to prosecutors, the pair came under investigation in December 2020 during an extensive probe into allegations of fraud involving prison or jail inmates filing bogus claims to obtain benefits from the California Employment Development Department, the D.A.’s office said.

The claims were submitted to siphon pandemic-related federal unemployment assistance funds, according to officials.

The pair was caught after investigators with the D.A.’s Office discovered that the same internet protocol address at Ironwood was associated with numerous filings, according to prosecutors.

Under the scheme, Peer, who was still incarcerated, contacted Avery, who was paroled in May 2020, to coordinate the use of EDD benefits cards issued to Ironwood inmates, investigators alleged.

“In the recorded phone calls between Peer and Avery, Peer provided Avery with personal identifying information for several inmates and other individuals so that Avery could file fraudulent EDD claims using that information,” the D.A.’s Office said.

Prosecutors said Avery would explain how much he would pay Peer for every person who had an EDD claim approved. 

“Per inmate phone calls, Peer provided Avery with personal identifying information for 19 subjects … with EDD benefits,” prosecutors said.

Investigators eventually seized Avery’s cellphone and discovered it had personal identifying details of 33 individuals, according to prosecutors.

“Avery’s phone also contained text messages that he sent to other individuals requesting to use their addresses to receive EDD mail and offering to pay a certain amount of money for each card that arrived at their address,” according to the agency statement.

The total amount of fraudulently obtained government funds was $518,030, prosecutors said.

The D.A.’s Office was continuing to investigate numerous EDD fraud-related cases, prosecutors say they expect further future arrests.

Meanwhile, a report released by the state in January auditor estimated that the EDD last year disbursed at least $10.4 billion in benefits based on fraudulent claims.

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