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Four more sentenced in unemployment scheme

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Four more Southwest Virginia residents have been sentenced to federal prison for their roles in a scheme that netted nearly a half-million dollars in fraudulent unemployment benefits.

The four were found guilty of conspiring with more than 30 others to defraud the U.S. government by filing claims for pandemic unemployment benefits and committing mail fraud and other offenses, according to a news release from the U.S. Department of Justice.

Randall Johnson, 42, of Castlewood, Virginia, was sentenced last week to 24 months in prison. Steven Mullins, 34, of Big Stone Gap, Virginia, was sentenced to 27 months, Ajay Johnson, 26, of Fruitland Park, Florida, received a sentence of 30 months, and Patrick Payne, 43, of Big Stone Gap, was sentenced to 24 months in prison.

“The nearly $500,000 in funds stolen by this conspiracy could have gone to Virginians in critical need of support during a pandemic but instead went into the hands of those undeserving,” U.S. Attorney Christopher R. Kavanaugh said last Tuesday. “The sentences handed out this week prove that this Department of Justice will not stand by as individuals take advantage of programs designed to help our nation recover from this once-in-a-generation health crisis.”

According to court documents, R. Johnson, Mullins, Payne and A. Johnson conspired with others to file claims for pandemic unemployment benefits through the Virginia Employment Commission (VEC) website. The scheme involved submitting claims for various individuals who were not eligible to receive pandemic unemployment benefits, including a number of inmates in Southwest Virginia regional jails. To date, 23 of the co-conspirators have pleaded guilty to their roles in the broader conspiracy.

Conspiracy members lied on the VEC filings as part of the scheme to make filers appear eligible for benefits. Because pandemic unemployment benefits were paid weekly, each of those filings reverified and recertified the false statements on numerous occasions, the release states.

In all, the conspiracy participants filed fraudulent claims for approximately 37 individuals. In addition to those indicted, eight co-conspirators have already entered into plea agreements.

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