One of two convicted felons accused of perpetrating an unemployment benefits scam that involved inmates at Ironwood State Prison in Blythe and netted over $500,000 in stolen funds pleaded not guilty Monday to 48 charges.
Brandon Christopher Avery, 28, of San Bernardino was arrested last week following a months-long investigation by the Riverside County District Attorney’s Office’s Major Fraud Unit, which also identified current Ironwood inmate 27-year-old Donald Marshawn Peer as an alleged co-conspirator.
Avery is charged with 48 counts of filing false affidavits to obtain government benefits, while Peer is charged with 16 related counts.
Avery was arraigned before Superior Court Judge David Gunn, who scheduled a felony settlement conference for Nov. 3 at the Riverside Hall of Justice.
The defendant is being held in lieu of $500,000 bail at the Robert Presley Detention Center in Riverside.
Avery is slated to be arraigned before the end of the year.
According to the District Attorney’s Office, the pair came under investigation in December during a sweeping inquiry into numerous allegations of fraud by inmates at prisons and jails, filing bogus claims to obtain jobless benefits from the California Employment Development Department.
The claims were submitted to siphon federal Pandemic Unemployment Assistance funds provided under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief & Economic Security Act, according to officials.
District Attorney’s Office investigators discovered that the same internet protocol address at Ironwood was associated with numerous filings, according to the agency.
The scheme involved Peer, still incarcerated, contacting 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,” according to a statement from the District Attorney’s Office.
“Avery explained 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.”
Avery’s cellphone was seized during the investigation and found to contain the 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.
A report released on Jan. 28 by California State Auditor Elaine Howle estimated that the EDD last year disbursed at least $10.4 billion in benefits based on fraudulent claims.
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 to stanch it.
The audit indicated more than $800 million in benefits was distributed to prisoners.
The District Attorney’s Office has won several convictions for EDD fraud in recent months. Additional prosecutions are pending.