Nine San Diego inmates charged in massive state unemployment benefits scam

Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility in Otay Mesa.
(Howard Lipin / San Diego Union-Tribune)

Nine men, all serving the last of their prison terms in a halfway house, were charged Thursday with defrauding the state unemployment fund of $160,000 in benefits, the San Diego County district attorney’s office said.

The arrests and charges are part of a larger investigation into prison inmates across the state who are suspected of defrauding the program of as much as $2 billion. The scam was uncovered in December, and Dist. Atty. Summer Stephan has said that inmates at local jails and the Richard J. Donovan state prison in Otay Mesa ripped off the state of at least $5 million.

According to a statement from Stephan’s office, all nine inmates were assigned to the Male Community Reentry Program, or MCRP. That’s a state program that allows some individuals with about a year to serve on their sentences to live in a halfway house to prepare them for the transition to life outside prison.


The fraud the group is accused of committing occurred last year between June and September. Prosecutors said the defendants were able to game the system and largely targeted the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program. That program, approved by Congress, appropriated billions to state unemployment funds to increase jobless benefits during the COVID-19 pandemic.

In the statement, prosecutors said the defendants used the funds to get everything from luxury items on Amazon to meals delivered from restaurants.

The San Diego County defendants are charged in Superior Court with conspiracy, grand theft and lying to receive unemployment benefits. Each faces more than three years in prison if convicted on all the charges.

The statewide investigation into the scam, which some prosecutors have said might be the largest fraud against taxpayers ever in the state, is ongoing. Federal authorities are also involved.

Last month, the U.S. attorney’s office in San Diego charged Nykia Gomez with wire fraud and identity theft. Prosecutors said Gomez worked for the Employment Development Department and from there orchestrated defrauding the program of hundreds of thousands of dollars for her prison inmate boyfriend and several of his fellow prisoners.

Typically the fraud occurred by submitting claims using stolen identities or actual identities of inmates to the program. When the claims were approved, the money was issued via debit cards mailed to the applicants.


But the state had little oversight. Applicants were allowed to self-certify they were eligible — something the federal program said would be allowed in order to send out benefits faster. The state did not cross-check names of applicants with names of people in prison, or people who would otherwise be ineligible, among other shortfalls.

The defendants charged Thursday are Ronald Davenport, 28; Zachary Frost, 31; Larry Van Johnson, 51; Daniel Eric Kisner, 42; Paul Ryan Owens, 41; Louis Terrell Bannister, 31; Erik Mikeal Nemec, 32; Roberto Ochoa, 27; and Javion Wallace, 26.

Moran writes for the San Diego Union-Tribune.