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Inmates fear pardons denied over COVID-19 relief unemployment scam

Virginia Unemployment Commission
Posted at 4:27 PM, Jan 13, 2022
and last updated 2022-01-13 17:41:13-05

RICHMOND, Va. – News 3 investigators have learned the multi-million dollar unemployment scam being investigated throughout Virginia prisons may have led to Gov. Ralph Northam’s denial of some promising pardon applications.

“I didn't have anything to do with it,” said Khali Pyatt, a Hampton man who claims he was wrongfully convicted of murder in 2001. “I feel like whoever [used my social security number to get unemployment funds], they need to get prosecuted because this is possibly hindering my freedom.”

According to federal court documents, the Virginia Employment Commission paid out more than $40 million to individuals who submitted claims on behalf of ineligible inmates.

Pyatt and other inmates whose pardons were denied in November 2021 because of “new information discovered during the investigation process” of their applications fear their names were flagged because their social security numbers were used to apply for COVID-19 relief unemployment applications without their knowledge.

“You got people's lives on the line,” Pyatt said from prison in an interview with investigator Jessica Larché. “It’s people like myself that are very deserving of a second chance.”

Northam is being applauded for granting pardons to nearly 1,100 people over the course of his term, more than all other Virginia governors combined. Northam has focused his pardoning power on people with evidence of innocence, and those with excessively long prison sentences.

Pyatt hoped he would be included in the governor’s pardons before his term ends this weekend.

“I never gave anybody my information to file for unemployment," Pyatt said. “Why would I do that knowing that I have a pardon in?”

Pyatt worries the Virginia Parole Board and the Secretary of the Commonwealth’s office – agencies that help investigate pardon applications and make recommendations to the governor – did not have enough time to determine if the inmates whose social security numbers were flagged in the VEC investigation were part of the problem or victims of identity theft.

“If somebody is truly innocent, [this] shouldn't hinder them from being free,” Pyatt said.

A Department of Justice news release said Virginia inmate Michael Lee Lewis, Jr. of Chesapeake worked with Mary Landon Benton of Portsmouth and Angelica Cartwright-Powers of Norfolk to get other inmates’ personal information to file for COVID unemployment relief, and scammed the VEC out of nearly $440,000.

Federal court records also reveal Virginia inmates Candice Pearce and John Tierney pleaded guilty to scamming the VEC out of $75,000 by submitting fraudulent claims.

News 3 reached out to the governor’s office about how the unemployment scam investigation may have impacted their decisions on pardon applications, but there was no response. News 3 confirmed the local NAACP is also looking into Pyatt’s claims.

Northam has said he would continue investigating pardon applications until his term ends Saturday.

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