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Woman pleads guilty in case of unemployment funds paid to ineligible Va. prison inmates
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Woman pleads guilty in case of unemployment funds paid to ineligible Va. prison inmates

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Soon, recipients of unemployment benefits will need to start showing that they are applying for jobs on a weekly basis.

A former state prison inmate pleaded guilty Thursday to mail fraud and aggravated identity theft for her role in a scam that allegedly led to more than $51,000 in unemployment claims being approved for ineligible state prisoners.

Candice Lee Pearce, 30, of Boydton faces up to 22 years in prison when she is sentenced Aug. 13 by U.S. District Judge Henry E. Hudson. Pearce was initially charged in a complaint filed in January against her and her husband, John Paul Tierney, 35, of Virginia Beach, another former state prisoner.

An affidavit filed with the complaint accused them of getting a total of roughly $75,000 in unemployment benefits approved and paid, some $51,198 of which was to be paid for five ineligible Virginia prison inmates — one of them Tierney, who was still a state prison inmate last year.

New charges filed against Pearce on March 30 do not specify the amounts of alleged illegally obtained benefits but said she could forfeit $23,607.

The case is one of an apparent number of such schemes. The Virginia Employment Commission believes it paid out more than $40 million in unemployment funds based on false information to people who submitted claims on behalf of prison inmates, according to federal authorities.

It is not known how many, if any, of the other inmates knew their personal identification information was allegedly being used to obtain benefits in their name or how much money was actually netted in the scam.

Court documents allege that payments were made to debit cards in the inmate names and were mailed to addresses in Hopewell. Pearce allegedly retrieved at least one of the cards, but others were returned to the VEC because the Hopewell addresses were invalid.

Pearce’s guilty plea comes the same day as a class-action suit was filed by the Legal Aid Justice Center, Legal Aid Works, the Virginia Poverty Law Center, Consumer Litigation Associates PC and Kelly Guzzo PLC on behalf of Virginians who lost their jobs during the pandemic and have had no income while waiting months for the VEC to approve their claims.

According to the Virginia Department of Corrections, Tierney was released on Jan. 20 after serving sentences for robbery and firearms convictions. The Department of Corrections said Pearce was released from supervision on Nov. 13 but could provide no further information.

Federal authorities said that because of the COVID-19 pandemic, “the VEC was receiving and processing an extraordinary number of UI claims.”

Because of the additional funds available as a result of the pandemic measures, especially the extra $600 a week in Federal Pandemic Unemployment Assistance benefits, the amount of unemployment insurance being paid out was “considerable,” according to authorities.

The VEC was also processing retroactive unemployment insurance claims, meaning that claimants who filed in June 2020 and attested they had been unemployed since March 2020 could receive retroactive benefits going back to March 2020, according to a government agent.

In June, the VEC began reviewing unemployment and pandemic unemployment assistance claims and in August learned that ineligible prison inmates in other states were receiving unemployment benefits, said the government.

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