The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Michigan has charged a Detroit woman for her alleged involvement in a $2 million fraud scheme that sought to defraud the state and federal government out of funds allocated for coronavirus (COVID-19) unemployment assistance.
Brandi Hawkins, 39, is accused of violating federal laws on theft and wire fraud. Attorney information was not available.
According to the complaint, Hawkins was a contract employee of the Michigan Unemployment Insurance Agency (UIA). She was reportedly assigned to work as an insurance examiner, and her duties included reviewing, processing, and verifying filed unemployment claims.
As the state struggled with a historic wave of layoffs caused by COVID-19 and economic shutdown orders, Hawkins allegedly used her position in the agency to fraudulently release payment on hundreds of illegitimate unemployment claims. The complaint claims there is “probable cause” that she knowingly and fraudulently transferred, used, and processed federal funds. Starting from April 2020, she allegedly used her “insider access” to transfer the funds into multiple bank accounts via interstate wire transmissions.
Through her alleged actions, she caused the disbursement of over $2,000,000 of federal and state funds that were meant to provide unemployment assistance to Americans affected by the pandemic. She used the ill-gotten proceeds to buy “high-end handbags” and luxury goods, the complaint claims. Law enforcement seized more than $200,000 in cash while executing a search warrant at her residence, sources indicate.
After Hawkins was fired on June 17, investigators reviewed the audit logs for her user account and discovered that she continued to remotely access state systems and was “actively ‘discarding’ fraud-stops and releasing payment on hundreds of fraudulent claims until early July 2020,” according to the complaint.
“Brandi Hawkins is charged with exploiting the current pandemic to defraud the State of Michigan and United States for her own personal gain. These are serious allegations, and my office is committed to prosecuting any person who attempts to use the COVID-19 crisis to defraud the people of Michigan,” said U.S. Attorney Matthew Schneider in a press release.
In early June, the UIA was forced to freeze 340,000 active accounts that had already been approved for payment, delaying benefits for some legitimate claimants and requiring them to submit additional documentation to confirm their identity as a fraud investigation was conducted.
According to sources, as of July 6, the agency has resolved 285,000 of the 340,000 active unemployment insurance accounts it had initially frozen during the fraud probe, along with 160,000 of the 200,000 new claims it had held up pending identification verification.
Hawkins’ criminal complaint, which was filed July 17, is the first public development in a month-long investigation into suspected unemployment fraud in Michigan by both state and federal officials. The investigation into the fraud allegations is ongoing. Once the investigation is completed, federal prosecutors will decide whether to seek a criminal indictment against Hawkins.
Theft and wire fraud are serious offenses that carry severe penalties. Defending against these charges is not easy, which is why it is crucial for anyone accused of committing these crimes to consult an seasoned defense attorney who has tried and tested ways of dealing with such cases.
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