Feds say COVID-19 fraudsters bragged about big-ticket items on Instagram
Federal prosecutors Tuesday accused a Detroit couple of stealing $138,000 in COVID-19 pandemic aid, blowing the cash on big-ticket items and bragging about it on social media.
Micahia Taylor, 27, and Johnny Richardson, 25, were charged with wire fraud, and are accused of teaming with a contract employee of Michigan's Unemployment Insurance Agency in a broader $2.5 million scheme involving money that was supposed tohelp people endure the coronavirus pandemic. Wire fraud is punishable by up to 20 years in federal prison.
They are the latest people charged with fraud involving federal pandemic assistance. Several people in Metro Detroit have been charged in recent months, including Detroiter Darrell Lamont Baker, 51, who prosecutors say schemed to obtain almost $600,000, some of it spent buying two Cadillac Escalades, a Dodge Charger, and a Hummer.
The couple bragged on Instagram about spending the money on luxury items, including a new Mercedes-Benz, trips and custom jewelry, according to criminal complaints unsealed in federal court.
In one post, Richardson showed a Mercedes-Benz SUV that retails for more than $130,000 — a birthday gift for Taylor, according to the government.
"BABY YOU DESERVE EVERYTHING I GOT THE BIG HOUSE YOU WANTED AND THE CAR AND THE JEWELRY," Richardson wrote in the Instagram post. "BTW I LOVE YOU SO MUCH AND I'M NOT DONE NEXT WEEK I GOT SOMETHING BETTER."
Federal agents spent Tuesday searching for Richardson. Taylor, meanwhile, made a brief appearance in federal court in Ann Arbor that provided a sharp contrast to her lifestyle portrayed on social media.
Instead of wearing a bikini and soaking in a bathtub surrounded by rose petals, Taylor wore handcuffs, a blue zip-up jacket and a dour expression before being released on $10,000 unsecured bond.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Timothy Wyse wanted her to wear a GPS tether, noting that her boyfriend is missing as is most of the $2.5 million in pandemic aid.
“We simply do not know where that $2.5 million is,” Wyse told Executive U.S. Magistrate Judge R. Steven Whalen. “We think that makes her a flight risk.”
Whalen, however, denied the request.
Her lawyer, Patrick Nyenhuis, declined comment Tuesday.
The investigation dates to July when investigators identified state contract employee Brandi Hawkins as being involved in a large-scale, fraudulent scheme to defraud the state and federal government of at least $2.5 million, according to the criminal cases unsealed Tuesday.
Hawkins illegally accessed state of Michigan computer systems to release fraudulent payments for unemployment claims for her and others, including Richardson, authorities allege.
Hawkins, 39, of Detroit was charged in July and she is accused of using her "insider access" at the agency "to fraudulently release payment on hundreds of fraudulent claims," according to Justice Department officials.
Investigators raided her home in July and seized approximately $238,000 in cash, Louis Vuitton merchandise and receipts for other luxury items.
A search of her cellphone uncovered messages between Hawkins and others regarding unemployment benefits. That includes messages from Taylor and communications involving unemployment claims for Richardson, according to the criminal complaint.
Hawkins exchanged messages with one phone number that investigators traced to Taylor's salon in Detroit, "MDMH Beauty Bar," according to the criminal case. The number is prominently featured on her salon's Instagram page.
Federal investigators described incriminating Instagram posts by Richardson, who is "not gainfully employed and has no other known legitimate source of income."
"In general, posts to Richardson's account routinely depict him wearing designer clothing and custom diamond-encrusted jewelry and watches, driving luxury vehicles, and in possession of large sums of money," U.S. Postal Inspection Service Inspector Erin Leipold wrote in the criminal case.
"Prior to setting her Instagram account to private, Taylor's account often pictured her with Richardson, and she was also pictured wearing diamond jewelry and watches."