Former state contractor sentenced for role in $3M unemployment fraud scheme

Robert Snell
The Detroit News

Detroit — A former state contractor who helped orchestrate a $3.8 million fraud scheme involving money intended to help unemployed people during the pandemic was sentenced to almost five years in federal prison Thursday.

U.S. District Judge Paul Borman sentenced former Michigan Unemployment Insurance Agency contract employee Brandi Hawkins, 40, of Detroit to 58 months in federal prison four months after she pleaded guilty to wire fraud. She admitted receiving bribes from people to file fraudulent unemployment insurance claims from April to June 2020, often using stolen identities.

The scheme netted $3.8 million in state and federal aid intended for unemployment assistance during the COVID-19 pandemic. Hawkins spent bribe money on high-end handbags and other luxury goods and investigators recovered more than $200,000 from her home during a federal raid, prosecutors said.

“Hawkins exploited the pandemic to defraud the State of Michigan and United States for her own personal gain,” Acting U.S. Attorney Saima Mohsin said in a statement. “This sentence should send a message to those who seek to divert funds intended for those in need during what has been a very difficult period of unemployment — you will be prosecuted."

Hawkins, a mother of six, grew up poor and hungry, suffered from anxiety and depression and became a patsy for others, her lawyer Randall Upshaw wrote in a sentencing memo.

“Without professional medical help, Defendant began to self-medicate and became a pawn for others, which resulted in being easily influenced, wrongful activities, and being charged in the present case,” Upshaw wrote.

Along with prison time, Hawkins was ordered to pay $3,793,186 restitution to the state.

Court records show Hawkins was terminated in June 2020 but continued to remotely access state systems. She was charged the next month.

Investigators have also linked her to a Detroit couple accused of stealing $138,000 in pandemic aid, spending it on pricey items and boasting about the deeds online.

“People who willfully commit unemployment insurance fraud should know that the state of Michigan and the Unemployment Insurance Agency are serious about identifying and holding them accountable for their actions,” Liza Estlund Olson, former acting director of the Unemployment Insurance Agency, said in a statement.

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