Unemployment insurance fraud became a major problem during the COVID-19 pandemic. This has been attributed to the overwhelming number of claims and the loosening of verification requirements by the federal government in order to deliver benefits as quickly as possible to those who lost jobs due to lockdowns. According to data released by Auditor Keith Faber’s office in October of 2021, more than $475 million was paid to fraudsters and another $3.3 billion in overpayments were made by the Ohio Department of Jobs and Family Services (ODJFS).
Only a handful of people have faced charges to date despite the appointment of David DeVillers, former U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Ohio, in October of to head up an investigation. At the time DeVillers said the probe would include the FBI and other federal agencies and that the probe would likely increase the work for newly elected Franklin County Prosecutor Gary Tyack.
The latest to be indicted is Donesha Shepard (30) of Hamilton County, a former employee for ODJFS. The indictment alleges she wrongly approved nearly $800,000 in unemployment benefits for more than 40 people in mid-2021.
According to the Inspector General’s (IG) report, the office received a referral of alleged wrongdoing in March of 2022 from ODJFS. The IG launched an investigation which found that Shepard agreed for a fee to remove fraud holds or denial-of-benefit designations on 41 applications for pandemic UI benefits, while working for the ODJFS.
Shepard advertised for her services by word of mouth and in Facebook posts.
Shepard worked for ODJFS between March of 2021 and the following August, when she was terminated. The illicit approvals began in June 2021, according to the IG’s report.
On February 8, a Hamilton County grand jury indicted Shepard and three others involved in the scheme on charges of theft, telecommunications fraud and bribery. Shepard was also charged with tampering with records. All are felonies of the third degree.
Director of ODJFS Matt Damschroder released a statement following the indictments which read in part: We are pleased with news of the indictment of four individuals in conjunction with fraud in the pandemic unemployment assistance program. This is not a victimless crime. These individuals allegedly stole from taxpayers… When we discovered that individuals like these may have been illegally abusing their access to our systems, we took immediate action to stop it and work with law enforcement to investigate and prosecute it. We thank all those agencies who helped bring this about and will continue working to ensure more criminals are brought to justice.
Other reported cases of CO-VID UI fraud in Ohio
March 2021 – Ricco Lamonte Maye, 38, Airrika N. Anthony, 32, Nicole L. Groves, 31, and Kevin E. Pearson, 57, all of Columbus, charged by US Attorney’s Office in the Southern District of Ohio with allegedly obtaining tens of thousands of dollars in fraudulent unemployment benefits.
August 2021 – Lawrence Lawson, 41, Cierra Clifton, 38, Emanuel Smith, 49, Terrance Jones, 27, Quantez Lawson, 29, Charles Moore, 35, Mark Dailey, 54, all from Cleveland area were indicted by US Attorney’s Office in the Northern District of Ohio with conspiracy to commit mail fraud.
According to a press release, from May through November of 2020, Lawson would recruit co-conspirators and other individuals to file pandemic unemployment insurance benefit claims on their behalf in exchange for a portion of the proceeds received. Cierra Clifton used their personal information to file unemployment claims on their behalf from her residence in Willoughby, Ohio. Clifton submitted claims through the Ohio Department of Jobs and Family Services (ODJFS) and other State Workforce Agencies (SWAs) in Pennsylvania, Arizona, Rhode Island, Delaware, Hawaii, Montana, Arizona and California. Lawson and Clifton then took a portion of the funds received as payment and an additional weekly fee to maintain their benefits.
As a result of the scheme, ODJFS and other SWAs suffered losses of approximately $355,849.
Sentenced as of March 2022:
Lawrence Lawson: 51 months in prison; $355,849 in restitution.
Cierra Clifton: 16 months in prison; $355,849 in restitution.
Emmanuel Smith: 17 months in prison; $23,783 in restitution.
Terrance Jones: 26 months in prison; $355,849 in restitution.
Charles Moore: 8 months in prison; $15,246 in restitution.
July 2022 – Osi Mokwunye, 44, of Cleveland was charged by the US Attorney’s Office in the Northern District of Ohio, in a 16-count indictment which alleged that he illegally obtaining more than $400,000 in pandemic unemployment insurance benefits using other people’s personal identifying information. Charges included one count of conspiracy to commit mail and wire fraud, five counts of mail fraud, five counts of wire fraud, and five counts of aggravated identity theft.
February 2023 – Robert Nathaniel Andre Thomas III, 24, and Montareo Banks, 24, both of Euclid, Ohio, were charged by the US Attorney’s Office in the Northern District of Ohio with allegedly engaging in a conspiracy to steal approximately $44,000 in pandemic unemployment insurance benefits from the federal government and the States of Ohio, Arizona, California, and New Jersey.