LOS ANGELES—A former California Employment Development Department (EDD) employee from Riverside County has agreed to plead guilty to causing nearly 200 fraudulent COVID-related unemployment relief claims to be filed in other people’s names, resulting in more than $1.6 million in ill-gotten gains, the U.S. Department of Justice announced Sept. 8.
Gabriela Llerenas, also known as Maria G. Sandoval, 49, signed a plea agreement filed Wednesday, in which she has agreed to plead guilty to a single count of mail fraud.
Court records show that the Perris woman previously worked at the EDD as a disability insurance program representative. She resigned in March 2002 after admitting to fraudulently authorizing and paying disability benefits administered by EDD and was sentenced to 37 months in federal prison in connection with that scheme.
The new scheme to which Llerenas has admitted took advantage of the expanded eligibility for unemployment insurance (UI) benefits made possible by the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act passed by Congress and signed into law in March 2020, according to the Department of Justice (DOJ).
The CARES Act provided additional UI benefits to qualified individuals and helped provide UI benefits during the COVID-19 pandemic to people who did not otherwise qualify, including business owners, self-employed workers, independent contractors, and those with a limited work history.
From April to October last year, Llerenas filed and caused the filing with EDD of fraudulent unemployment insurance benefits that falsely asserted the named claimants were self-employed independent contractors—often identifying them as cake decorators or event attendants—who were negatively affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Llerenas obtained some of the names, Social Security numbers, and other identifying information she used to submit the fraudulent claims through her prior work as a tax preparer, according to the DOJ.
In her plea agreement, Llerenas also admitted to falsely stating on some of the applications that the claimants were residents of California entitled to unemployment insurance benefits administered by EDD when in fact they lived elsewhere. She additionally admitted that, on some applications, she inflated the amounts of income she reported for the claimant to maximize the benefit amount. She also admitted to sometimes filing a dozen or more fraudulent EDD claims in a day.
As a result of the fraudulent unemployment benefits applications that Llerenas filed and caused to be filed, the EDD authorized Bank of America to mail debit cards in the names of the claimants to addresses she provided, including her residence, her husband’s business location, her mother’s apartment, and the addresses of friends and other family members, according to the DOJ.
Llerenas admitted that she charged the named claimants a fee for filing the applications, which was often paid out of the fraudulently obtained benefits. In at least one case, she told the named claimant that she was still employed at EDD and could control the distribution of the unemployment insurance benefits, and then demanded an additional payment for “releasing” the benefits, according to the DOJ.
In total, 197 debit cards were fraudulently issued because of the scheme, resulting in losses to the EDD and the United States Treasury that Llerenas has admitted were at least $1,633,487.
Llerenas is scheduled to make her initial appearance in Los Angeles federal court on Sept. 22. The criminal offense to which she has agreed to plead guilty carries a sentence of up to 20 years in federal prison.