AG: Inmates, accomplice charged with conspiracy to illegally obtain pandemic assistance

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HARRISBURG, Pa. (WTAJ) — Attorney General Josh Shapiro Tuesday announced the arrest of two inmates and their outside accomplice for their roles as ringleaders who conspired to provide false information on Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) applications.

“These three individuals have been charged for conspiring to illegally take benefits from hard-working Pennsylvanians who continue to struggle through this immensely difficult time,” said Attorney General Shapiro. “As I’ve said previously, these arrests are not the end of our investigation, and my office will continue to track down those heading these schemes and bring them to justice.”

John Jones, an inmate at SCI Rockview in Centre County, and Robert Palmer, an inmate at SCI Huntingdon in Huntingdon County, were charged with illegally applying for PUA benefits for themselves and on behalf of inmates from across the Commonwealth.

Also arrested was Palmer’s girlfriend and outside accomplice Elise Ballard, of Johnstown, Pa., who submitted PUA applications for 22 inmates from 6 state correctional facilities including 10 from SCI Huntingdon, 1 from SCI Somerset, 1 from SCI Mahanoy.

PUA applications submitted by Jones include 7 from SCI Rockview, 2 from SCI Camp Hill, and 1 from SCI Houtzdale. Ballard also illegally submitted PUA applications for friends and family of the inmates who were not otherwise eligible.

After submitting the applications, Ballard received the PUA payments in the form of US Bank debit cards issued by the Department of Labor & Industry. She would then send payments to Jones and Palmer through their prison JPay accounts or MoneyGram. The total PUA funds associated with the applications was $226,082.

To date, the Office of Attorney General has charged 29 individuals, including 24 inmates and their accomplices, across the Commonwealth for submitting fraudulent PUA applications amounting to more than $2.3 million in illegally obtained PUA funds.

Individuals are only eligible for PUA benefits if they are both unemployed for reasons related to the COVID-19 pandemic and available to work. In order to receive benefits, an individual must access the PUA website and file a PUA claim. The applicant is required to enter personal identifying information and answer eligibility questions.

Individuals who are serving a sentence of incarceration, or who are detained pending a criminal trial, are neither available for work nor unemployed for reasons related to the COVID-19 pandemic. As a result, they are not eligible to receive PUA benefits for the period of their incarceration.

Individuals who apply for emergency unemployment benefits when they are employed or incarcerated are breaking federal and state law. Individuals found to be involved with organized efforts to obtain emergency unemployment benefits illegally can face significant prison time and financial penalties.

All three defendants were charged in Dauphin County. The case will be prosecuted by Senior Deputy Attorney General Heather Castellino. A criminal complaint is only a formal charging document and is not evidence of guilt. All defendants are presumed innocent until and unless proven guilty.

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