Baltimore, Maryland – A federal grand jury has handed down an indictment indicting three Maryland men on federal charges relating to a scheme to fraudulently obtain more than $ 2.7 million in unemployment benefits. The indictment was released on August 30, 2021 and unsealed today during the arrests of the defendants. Are accused in the indictment:
Gladstone Njokem, 34, of Hyattsville, Maryland;
Martin Tabe, 32, of Bowie, Maryland; and
Sylvester Atekwane, 31, of Hyattsville.
The defendants will appear for the first time today at 1:30 p.m. in United States District Court in Baltimore before United States Magistrate Judge Beth P. Gesner.
The indictment was announced by the Acting United States Attorney for the District of Maryland, Jonathan F. Lenzner; Post Inspector in Charge Daniel A. Adame of the US Postal Inspection Service – Washington Division; Special Agent in Charge Derek Pickle, Washington Regional Office, US Department of Labor – Office of the Inspector General; and the Special Agent in Charge James R. Mancuso of Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) Baltimore.
As detailed in the indictment, in Maryland, Michigan, and Tennessee, people who have lost their jobs can contact the appropriate state agency to submit a claim for Unemployment Insurance (AC) benefits. . Claims for Unemployment Insurance benefits in the tri-state are generally submitted electronically through the use of the Internet or Internet-enabled devices. If the former employee meets certain conditions, he or she becomes eligible for unemployment insurance benefits. Prior to April 2021, an approved claimant for unemployment insurance benefits in Maryland received a prepaid VISA debit card in the mail with the claimant’s name on it. Claimants in Michigan and Tennessee also had the option of having their UI benefits deposited to a prepaid debit card. In each state, the appropriate state agency would authorize the electronic application of UI benefits to the debit card and would continue to do so periodically if the claimant continued to be entitled to benefits.
The Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act (âCARESâ) was enacted on March 27, 2020. It expanded states’ ability to provide unemployment insurance to many workers affected by the pandemic COVID-19, including for workers who are not. normally eligible for unemployment benefits. The CARES Act created the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance Program (“PUA”), under which states are allowed to provide PUAs to people who are self-employed, seeking part-time employment, or would not be eligible for regular unemployment insurance benefits. The CARES Act also established the Emergency Pandemic Unemployment Compensation Program (“PEUC”), which covers most people who have exhausted all their rights to regular unemployment insurance compensation under federal or state law and who are able to work, available for work and actively seeking work. as defined by state law. Finally, the CARES Act also established the Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation Program (âFPUCâ). From April 4, 2020 to July 31, 2020, the FPUC authorized states to pay an additional $ 600 per week to people receiving unemployment insurance compensation. From January 2021 to September 6, 2021, the FPUC authorized states to provide an additional $ 300 per week to people receiving unemployment insurance compensation.
According to the 13-count indictment, from February 2020 to February 2021, Njokem, Tabe, Atekwane and others conspired to pose as victims in order to submit fraudulent unemployment insurance claims . To do this, the defendants obtained the personally identifiable information (PII) of the victims, often under false pretenses. For example, Njokem obtained PII from at least one victim by falsely claiming to sell puppies. The defendants have reportedly shared personal information with each other and with others and used the personal information of victims to submit fraudulent claims for unemployment insurance benefits in Maryland, Michigan and Tennessee.
The indictment alleges that the fraudulent claims contained false statements regarding the victims’ contact details, address, availability for work and that they were newly unemployed. The defendants allegedly used fake physical addresses for unemployment insurance claims, so that all state-paid unemployment insurance benefits would be collected by defendants rather than victims. In some cases, defendants have used their own physical addresses in unemployment insurance claims to receive unemployment insurance benefits from victims. In other cases, defendants have used the addresses of nearby vacant residences to receive unemployment insurance claims in order to avoid detection by government authorities.
As detailed in the indictment, once the defendants received the fraudulently obtained debit cards, they made cash withdrawals and other transactions throughout Maryland and used the money on their own. advantage and for the benefit of others who were also not entitled to the money.
The indictment alleges that as a result of the conspiracy, Njokem, Tabe, Atekwane and others caused the submission of at least 600 fraudulent unemployment insurance claims in Maryland, Michigan, Tennessee and at least sixteen other states, resulting in more than $ 2.7 million in actual losses.
If convicted, defendants face a maximum sentence of 20 years in federal prison for conspiring to commit wire fraud and for each of the nine counts of wire fraud. The defendants also each face a mandatory two-year federal prison sentence, following any other sentence imposed, for aggravated identity theft. The actual sentences for federal crimes are generally less than the maximum sentences. A federal district court judge will determine any sentence after taking into account US sentencing guidelines and other statutory factors.
An indictment is not a guilty verdict. An individual charged with an indictment is presumed innocent until proven guilty in subsequent criminal proceedings.
United States Acting Attorney Jonathan F. Lenzner commended USPIS, DOL-OIG, HSI, and the US Department of the Treasury – OIG for their work in the investigation. Mr. Lenzner thanked the Prince George County Police Department, the Baltimore Police Department and the Maryland Department of Labor for their assistance. Mr. Lenzner also thanked Deputy US Prosecutors Zachary H. Ray, Sean R. Delaney and Matthew Maddox, who are pursuing the federal case.
On May 17, 2021, the Attorney General created the COVID-19 Fraud Enforcement Working Group to mobilize the resources of the Department of Justice in partnership with government agencies to strengthen efforts to combat and prevent the pandemic fraud. The Working Group strengthens efforts to investigate and prosecute the most culpable national and international criminal actors and assists agencies responsible for administering relief programs to prevent fraud, among other methods, by scaling up and integrating mechanisms coordination, identifying resources and techniques for uncovering fraudulent actors and their programs, and sharing and leveraging information and knowledge gained from previous enforcement efforts. For more information on the Ministry’s response to the pandemic, please visit https://www.justice.gov/coronavirus.
Anyone with information about allegations of attempted fraud involving COVID-19 can report it by calling the Department of Justice’s National Center for Disaster Fraud Enforcement (NCDF) hotline at 866-720 -5721 or via the NCDF online complaint form at: https://www.justice.gov/disaster-fraud/ncdf-disaster-complaint-form.
For more information on the Maryland US Attorney’s Office, its priorities, and the resources available to help the community, please visit www.justice.gov/usao-md and https://www.justice.gov/usao-md/community-outreach.
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