Detroit man pleads guilty in COVID-19 unemployment fraud scheme

Mark Hicks
The Detroit News

A Detroit man accused of stealing $138,000 in COVID-19 relief has pleaded guilty in a scheme to defraud Michigan and other states, federal officials said Tuesday.

Johnny Richardson, 26, was first charged last year along with his girlfriend, Micahia Taylor. Prosecutors accused them of partnering with Brandi Hawkins, a former contract employee at Michigan's Unemployment Insurance Agency, in a $2.5 million scheme involving money intended to help workers during the pandemic.

According to a plea agreement, "Richardson, either himself or through others, filed fraudulent unemployment claims over the Internet in at least five states resulting in the fraudulent disbursement of at least $683,555 of funds intended for unemployment assistance during the pandemic," federal officials said Tuesday.

Johnny Richardson posted on Instagram that he purchased a new Mercedes-Benz for girlfriend Micahia Taylor. Both have been charged with fraud.

"Richardson provided Hawkins information on Michigan claims, and Hawkins subsequently used her insider access to fraudulently release payments on these claims."

Authorities have said 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."

Taylor is scheduled for a plea hearing on Aug. 10, said the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Michigan on Tuesday.

Richardson is scheduled to be sentenced at 11 a.m. Nov. 9 before U.S. District Judge Friedman.  

Hawkins pleaded guilty last month and is scheduled for sentencing on Oct. 28.  She faces a statutory maximum penalty of 20 years in federal prison.