Michigan UIA employee charged with releasing payments on 101 claims totaling $1.6M

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

A longtime Michigan unemployment insurance examiner inappropriately released payments on 101 unemployment claims totaling more than $1.6 million for individuals filing from two IP addresses in Romulus and Detroit in a "large-scale fraud scheme," a Tuesday federal criminal complaint said. 

The complaint alleges Antonia Brown was assigned to the Unemployment Insurance Agency's Benefit Payment Control Unit when she accessed about 110 of the 123 claims filed from two residential IP addresses linked to Kiannia Mitchell and Angela Johnson.

Brown, an employee of the state of Michigan since 2002, altered or authorized payment on 101 of the 110 claims, a task completed when Brown "had no legitimate reason" to access, modify or approve the claims between March 2020 and June 2021, the state's Fraud Investigation Unit told a special agent with the U.S. Department of Labor.  

Mitchell and Johnson's 101 pandemic unemployment claims in which Brown was involved amounted to about $1.6 million in federal pandemic unemployment money, the criminal complaint from the U.S. Department of Labor said.

The complaint notes that federal agents executed search warrants related to the investigation on Sept. 29, 2021, at which point agents interviewed Mitchell, Brown and Johnson.

The complaint charges Brown, Mitchell and Johnson with mail fraud; wire fraud; conspiracy to commit mail and wire fraud; and fraud concerning programs receiving federal funds. 

UIA Director Julia Dale on Wednesday said the agency would not tolerate the theft of taxpayer money meant for unemployed residents.

"It’s particularly galling when evidence points to the bad actor as being someone on our staff who was entrusted to do the right thing in helping those down on their luck," Dale said. "Anyone who shatters that trust will be dealt with to the fullest extent of the law and we will use all the tools at our disposal in conjunction with our federal law enforcement partners to do everything we can to bring bad actors to justice."

Brown no longer works for the agency, the agency said Wednesday. But an agency spokesman would not divulge the circumstances or timing of Brown's departure.

"We can’t get into personnel details," said agency spokesman Nick Assendelft.

In early March, the Unemployment Insurance Agency said a total of 18 employees had been suspended or fired during the pandemic because of pending criminal investigations.

Aside from Brown, three unemployment agency employees have been charged so far for alleged fraudulent activity during the pandemic. 

The Unemployment Insurance Agency said in December that it estimated it lost more than $8.5 billion to fraud during the pandemic, as claims skyrocketed and fraud attempts were persistent. The estimated losses broke down to about $2.8 billion related to impostor fraud or claims involving stolen identities and $5.7 billion to likely intentional misrepresentation cases or claims involving false statements or documents. 

Some lawmakers have challenged the $8.5 billion total, arguing it is just an estimate that may include people who unintentionally misrepresented themselves because of confusing rules generated during the rushed roll-out of federal unemployment benefits. 

According to Tuesday's complaint, Mitchell and Johnson told authorities they were filing the claims on behalf of others, received payments from those they assisted and paid Brown for her assistance.

"... Both Johnson and Mitchell admitted they received money from third parties to assist them with their claims, via CashApp and that they paid Brown via CashApp for her assistance," the complaint said.

Brown, for her part, confirmed Mitchell and Johnson were friends and that she spoke with them about some claims, the complaint said. Brown said she received payments directly from some claimants and from Mitchell and Johnson, but said it was not because of the assistance she provided, according to the filing.

Brown received a total of $50,500 in CashApp payments, with about $5,075 of that coming from Johnson and $2,325 from Mitchell, the complaint said.

Mitchell received $108,860 on CashApp and Johnson received about $54,537, according to the complaint.

The complaint alleges that about 101 claims from Mitchell and Johnson's IP addresses were flagged by the state's Fraud Manager System, at which point Brown accessed and altered the claims to remove the flags and release payment. The instances cited in the complaint include one claim in which Brown is alleged to have discarded an employer protest saying Mitchell wasn't eligible for pandemic unemployment assistance.

Brown was required to use a state phone system to communicate with any claimants, employees or the public, but none of the phone numbers listed for the 101 claims were listed on her call history on the state system, the complaint said. 

"...many prior investigations have involved similar schemes since the onset of the pandemic in the spring of 2020," the complaint said. 

"The scheme works through the online submission of claims by outsiders target the state of Michigan UI system. Once the claims are filed, the outsiders signal a state of Michigan employee, such as Brown, who then uses their employment to 'push' the claims through for approval and payment," the complaint said.