News 3 investigates how tax dollars meant to help with pandemic relief went to suspected swindlers

Posted at 2:25 PM, Oct 22, 2021
and last updated 2021-10-22 17:38:49-04

HAMPTON ROADS, Va. - News 3 is investigating how your tax dollars that were meant to help with COVID-19 relief efforts went to suspected swindlers.

Several recent cases show how not only do local people continue to face charges for this issue, but experts across the country say this is a huge problem that’s costing you money.

As the federal government quickly pumped out COVID-19 relief funds, government officials say con artists were looking to get their hands on that money.

Senator Bill DeSteph from District 8 in Virginia Beach fielded thousands of calls during the pandemic from people who truly needed help to get their unemployment and other government benefits, but he said he also had people calling him who he believes were trying to take advantage of the system. He also said he had business owners calling him with issues of people pretending like they had worked for various businesses and filing unemployment with the Virginia Employment Commission.

He said he even experienced this himself.

“Even at a couple of my companies, we had people say they were employed by me. I’m like, did that person ever work for me?” DeSteph said.

News 3's investigations team uncovered recent cases highlighting these kinds of accusations.

Federal prosecutors allege that Alon Clements falsely claimed to the VEC that he was laid off from his job at Goodwill as a result of a reduction in force. The government claims they gave him $2,900. He is currently facing wire and mail fraud charges.

Court records state that $18,000 was wrongly deposited into DeMichael Peeples's bank after he allegedly claimed he lost his employment at Aerotek and Walmart as a result of the pandemic. He’s been charged with fraud in connection with major disaster benefits, wire and mail fraud charges.

Four people are now facing charges connected to an alleged scheme inside the Greensville Correctional Center. Inmates Mark Hilliard and Elvon George are accused of recruiting other inmates to give personal information and giving it to two people on the outside – Chaela Tharp and Laishi George. They are accused of fraudulently filing for unemployment benefits for the inmates.

Federals officials say the plan worked 14 times and failed five times, and the co-conspirators were able to obtain more than $207,000. Court documents say once the VEC realized that the claims were for inmates, they were able to claw back about $3,593.

These are just three local cases.

In early October, the Labor Department reported that although the exact number is unknown, they give a conservative estimate that $87 billion in unemployment insurance benefits could have been paid improperly. Much of that they believe was fraud.

Taxpayers are the victims in these cases.

“It’s the businesses, it’s the taxpayers, because ultimately we’re going to pay more for the goods and pay more for everything. These individuals are defrauding the system and they’re like, ‘Well, nobody’s getting hurt’. Everybody’s getting hurt. That’s the problem. The taxpayers are being defrauded,” DeSteph said.

The attorney general has directed the establishment of the COVID-19 Fraud Enforcement Task Force and investigators are working throughout the country in an effort to combat this issue even months after this money was given out.

We reached out to the lawyers defending the suspects in these cases.

We have not heard back yet except for Laishi George’s attorney, who did not have a comment about the accusations.

Anyone with information about allegations of attempted fraud involving COVID-19 can report it by calling the Department of Justice’s National Center for Disaster Fraud (NCDF) Hotline at 866-720-5721 or via the NCDF Web Complaint Form here.

Click here for more News 3 Investigations.