A 28-year-old man accused of committing identity theft to fraudulently collect hundreds of thousands of dollars in unemployment benefits pleaded not guilty Friday to more than two dozen felony charges.
Thomas Frank Ledbetter of Fontana was arrested Tuesday following a months-long Riverside Police Department investigation.
Ledbetter is charged with 13 counts each of identity theft and fraud, as well as one count each of money laundering, grand theft and possession of controlled substances.
He was arraigned before Riverside County Superior Court Judge David Gunn, who scheduled a felony settlement conference for June 22 at the Riverside Hall of Justice and ordered the defendant held on $75,000 bail at the Robert Presley Jail.
Riverside police Detective Brian Money said Wednesday that Ledbetter had been under investigation since September, culminating in an arrest warrant being obtained and served on him.
According to the detective, it’s believed the defendant stole as much as $316,500 in unemployment benefits from the California Employment Development Department.
The investigation began with a traffic stop on Sept. 19, resulting in Ledbetter being taken into custody for allegedly driving on a suspended license.
Money said $9,000 in casino winnings was seized from the car, where officers also located “nearly 23 grams of heroin, needle syringes and 13 EDD ATM cards” that were in other people’s names — all of them in other states.
Ledbetter was released on his own recognizance, but the investigation continued, ultimately pointing to numerous instances of the defendant “making $1,000 cash withdrawals using each of the 13 EDD cards” on different occasions, over an unspecified period, Money alleged.
He said the individuals in whose names and with whose Social Security numbers EDD unemployment claims had been filed were completely unaware of what had transpired.
Money said the EDD system is “absolutely inundated and overwhelmed with fraud cases related to unemployment.”
“They take several months to return records and evidence needed in these cases,” the detective said.
The police department’s Economic Crimes Unit is actively investigating numerous cases, he said. The District Attorney’s Office’s Bureau of Investigation has also been busy, as well as the U.S. Department of Justice.
Sen. Melissa Melendez, R-Lake Elsinore, sounded the alarm last summer after constituents began dumping piles of EDD claims letters on her staff, not knowing why they had received them when other people’s names were listed. Melendez characterized the benefits distribution system as plagued by fraud that the governor and other state officials were not adequately addressing.
A report released on Jan. 28 by California State Auditor Elaine Howle estimated the EDD last year disbursed at least $10.4 billion in benefits based on fraudulent claims, all of which were tied to the federal Pandemic Unemployment Assistance provided under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief & Economic Security Act.
The audit uncovered instances in which the U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of Inspector General flagged nearly 3 million unemployment claims as likely connected to fraud, but the EDD failed to respond proactively.
Inmates incarcerated in multiple counties are under investigation. The audit indicated more than $800 million in benefits were distributed to prisoners. Riverside County jail inmates have also been implicated.
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