HARRISBURG -- Twenty people, prison inmates and other conspirators, have been accused of fraudulently applying to get $300,000 in unemployment benefits from a program created to help self-employed workers and gig employees.
Attorney General Josh Shapiro announced the charges against inmates at SCI Benner in Centre County, at SCI Mahanoy in Schuylkill County, and at SCI Phoenix in Montgomery County on Wednesday, saying that inmates conspired with helpers outside the prison to illegally apply for benefits from the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program
Since the program was launched, it has paid out about $5 billion through almost 2 million claims.
“This program was a lifeline for so many Pennsylvanians that made the difference for them being able to put food on the table and their families going hungry,” Shapiro said, calling the bid by prison inmates to illegally access benefits, “shocking.”
It’s the second round of charges announced by state and federal prosecutors against inmates accused of illegally obtaining PUA benefits. Last month, prosecutors announced charges against 33 inmates.
Officials at the Department of Labor and Industry have acknowledged that the program has been repeatedly targeted by scammers trying to illegally get benefits.
The state froze payments for new applicants on Monday after the Department of Labor and Industry noticed that there had been a suspicious surge in applications on Friday when the number of claims for PUA benefits increased from 5,000 per day to 20,000.
In announcing the freeze, Labor and Industry Secretary Jerry Oleksiak said agency officials "have a fiduciary responsibility to ensure taxpayer money is being spent appropriately," even though that may mean holding up benefits for claimants who need the money.
The program is still accepting new applicants. They just aren't being paid, a Labor and Industry spokeswoman said.
Shapiro said that the arrests announced Wednesday won’t be the last charges announced against people accused of illegally obtaining PUA benefits and charges will likely be filed against people both already in jail and those outside prison.
In August, when 33 people were charged in what U.S. Attorney Scott Brady called “the tip of the iceberg.” Brady estimated the cost of the fraud to be approaching a quarter-billion dollars.
A spokeswoman for Brady’s office said Wednesday that a federal grand jury last week indicted the first nine defendants in that set of 33 cases.
The previous set of charges included inmates and some not in jail, and they were accused of theft, conspiracy, filing or helping to file a fraudulent federal benefits application and lying to investigators.
Two ringleaders and eight other inmates at SCI Benner conspired to get $153,470 in illegal benefits from the PUA program, Shapiro said.
Adele Moore, of State College, and James G. Neff Zonge, an inmate at SCI Benner, began operating the fraud ring out of the Centre County state prison after Moore successfully applied for COVID-19 unemployment benefits on behalf of Neff Zonge. Moore and Neff Zonge established a system in which Moore would use an inmate’s personal identifying information, apply for COVID-19 benefits from her address, and then give the inmate a portion of the collected benefits. Moore would keep some of the money she obtained on behalf of the inmates for her own use, Shapiro said.
Derek L. Young, of Watsontown, was one of the inmates for whom Moore allegedly obtained fraudulent benefits. He allegedly got $9,930 in illegal PUA benefits, Shapiro said.
At SCI Mahanoy, Wendy Danfora of York, and Markal Munford, an inmate, conspired to file at least 13 fraudulent claims worth almost $79,000, Shapiro said.
Five inmates at SCI-Phoenix conspired with people outside the jail to get about $45,000 in benefits, Shapiro said. Two inmates were charged for providing information to others to get illegal benefits, even though the inmates never got paid for the fraud, Shapiro said.
(The Associated Press contributed to this report.)