The Board of Supervisors signed off Tuesday on Riverside County District Attorney Mike Hestrin’s contract with the state to take the lead in handling investigations and prosecutions involving unemployment fraud.
In a 5-0 vote without comment, the board authorized the agreement with the California Office of Emergency Services, the terms of which are retroactive to Aug. 1, 2020, and will conclude on Dec. 31 of this year. A total $1.25 million is being awarded by Cal-OES.
DA’s staff is now tasked with overseeing the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance & Unemployment Insurance Fraud Task Force.
The funds allocated under the compact can be used for overtime expenses, hiring investigators, paying on-the-job expenses of city attorneys and area law enforcement officers while they build cases to present to the DA’s office, and equipment purchases required for investigations and prosecutions to move forward, according to agency.
The DA’s office is handling a growing number of fraud cases directly tied to jobless claims filed during the coronavirus public health lockdowns. Some investigations are managed by the DA’s Bureau of Investigations; others are being spearheaded by municipal police agencies.
The Riverside Police Department’s Economic Crimes Unit has been particularly busy. Earlier this month, the unit completed an investigation that uncovered the alleged theft of $316,500 in unemployment benefits from the California Employment Development Department. The 28-year-old defendant allegedly stole the identities of 13 people to withdraw the funds using state-issued ATM cards.
A report released on Jan. 28 by California State Auditor Elaine Howle estimated the EDD in 2020 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 Labor Department’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, including Riverside, are under investigation. The audit indicated more than $800 million in benefits were distributed to prisoners.