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Unemployment insurance program getting help in ferreting out fraud

Employment Development Department is teaming up with Folsom-based Pondera Soutions to ferret out fraud

California's troubled unemployment insurance program is getting a little more high-tech.

In recent years, the state Employment Development Department has been plagued by breakdowns of a 30-year-old computer system. Staffers were forced to spend extra time manually dealing with cases to look for irregularities or suspected fraud.

The upshot was that tens of thousands of legitimate claims for benefits of up to $450 a week were denied or delayed, making it hard for jobless workers to pay rent, buy gas and put food on the table.

Now, the agency hopes it's found a faster, cheaper and more accurate way to zero in on fraudulent claims that cost an estimated tens of millions of dollars a year: It's teaming up with a Sacramento-area company that partners with Google Inc. technology to ferret out fraud, sometimes even before it happens.

The state is using a $1.75-million, one-year grant from the U.S. Department of Labor to use the services of Folsom-based Pondera Solutions.

"Our goal is to identify as quickly as possible any potential fraud that's occurring in the system with no tolerance for false documents," said Jon Coss, Pondera's chief executive. "We can knock the bad actors out of the system."

Beginning Jan. 1, California will be the second state in the country, after Iowa, with Pondera technology.

Pondera uses cloud-based Google programs that analyze unemployment insurance claimants, employer tax payments and even street-level photos to signal to government agencies that further investigation is needed, Coss said.

The new system, said EDD Director Patrick W. Henning Jr., "will help us more quickly identify any suspicious patterns."

Fixing gas leaks

The state's natural gas utilities have a new mandate to find and fix leaks in their distribution systems before they cause accidents that could be as disastrous as a blast that leveled a Northern California neighborhood four years ago.

Lawmakers recently approved a bill ordering the Public Utilities Commission to screen statewide for big and small leaks.

Gas pipeline safety has become a front-burner issue since 2010 when a transmission line exploded, killing eight residents of the city of San Bruno, injuring 66 others and destroying 38 homes.

Natural gas is ubiquitous in California. More than 12 million homes rely on the commodity for heat. It also generates more than 40% of the state's electricity output.

Natural gas contains methane, a greenhouse gas linked to climate change.

"In order to protect the public health and the environment, we must keep natural gas in the pipes where it belongs as opposed to letting it leak into the air," said state Sen. Mark Leno (D-San Francisco). He wrote SB 1371, which takes effect on Jan. 1.

The law, he said, will ensure that "leaking gas pipes are repaired quickly and in a cost-efficient manner for consumers."

marc.lifsher@latimes.com

Twitter: @MarcLifsher

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