Ex-California contract worker charged in pandemic aid scam with inmate boyfriend
A former employee who worked for California’s unemployment insurance program has been charged with conspiring with her prison inmate boyfriend to steal hundreds of thousands of dollars in pandemic aid, the U.S. attorney’s office said Thursday.
Nyika Gomez, 40, of San Diego was arrested at her home Wednesday and pleaded not guilty to charges of wire fraud and identity theft in San Diego federal court.
The scam is among several that investigators have uncovered in recent months involving fraudulent COVID-19 unemployment payments to prison inmates, including notorious convicted murderer Scott Peterson at San Quentin State Prison. Earlier this month, state authorities said at least $400 million had been paid on some 21,000 prison claims.
Federal investigators said Thursday that $21,000 went to an address in Roseville under the name and Social Security number of U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein. They said that and other fraudulent claims had been linked to another woman who once worked for the state.
Gomez was a contract employee for the state Employment Development Department beginning the end of July, according to the complaint. As a call center agent, she helped residents process unemployment claims.
According to the complaint, unsealed Thursday, she used that expertise to defraud the system and pay herself, her boyfriend and some of his fellow inmates.
Her boyfriend, who is identified only as “BT” in court records, is serving a term of 94 years to life at California State Prison, Sacramento, on a murder conviction, according to prosecutors. With his help, Gomez allegedly obtained personal identifying information — such as names, dates of birth and Social Security numbers — of several other inmates, and bought the same type of information from people living out of state.
Gomez then submitted pandemic-related unemployment claims using the information, causing the state to send loaded debit cards to her home and elsewhere, according to the complaint. She deposited some of the money into the prison accounts of her boyfriend and 12 other inmates, the complaint states.
The fake claimants reported losing jobs in various sectors, including model/photographer, landscape consultant, hairstylist and janitorial supervisor.
“All of the claims falsely cite COVID-19 as the reason for unemployment,” a special agent with the U.S. Department of Labor, Office of the Inspector General, wrote in the complaint. “In fact, these prison inmates were not unemployed because of COVID-19, they were unemployed because they were in prison and could not legally work.”
Investigators obtained surveillance video evidence of Gomez using ATM machines to withdraw some of the funds from the fraudulent debit cards, authorities said.
“Pandemic unemployment insurance programs are a critical part of our safety net designed to support hardworking citizens who are suffering during this unprecedented time,” U.S. Atty. Robert Brewer said in a statement. “Fraud related to COVID-19 is particularly disturbing as it exploits a national crisis for personal gain.”
Davis writes for the San Diego Union-Tribune.
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