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Nevada inmates collecting unemployment benefits in jail

Nevada inmates collecting unemployment benefits in jail

By Loni Blandford. CREATED May 9, 2013

Las Vegas, NV (KTNV) -- Behind bars but still collecting a paycheck. Contact 13 uncovered a state audit that estimates as much as $5 million over the past three years was paid out in unemployment benefits to inmates.

Locked up and far from being able, available and actively seeking employment, even so, inmates throughout Nevada are collecting cash through unemployment benefits.

"If they're incarcerated how does the state not know this," asked Robyn Curtis.

How is a process so many dread so easy to cheat? It's the question a legislative audit and Contact 13 tried to answer. 

"Why isn't it being caught while it's happening? Why does it take an audit to catch this," asked Chief Investigator Darcy Spears.

"Some if it is being caught. Prior to the audit, we were investigating and pursuing approximately 50 cases," explained Jeffrey Frischmann with the State's Employment Security Division.

He says the process of getting unemployment can leave the system vulnerable to fraud.

"Do you have to see them sitting across the table like you and me to make sure hey you're here, you're able," asked Darcy.

"Unfortunately, no," said Jeff.

Overwhelming demand has opened more avenues for help. Instead of coming down to the unemployment office, benefits are renewed over the phone or the Internet. So with the right information, the wrong person can file a weekly claim.

Robyn went through four appeals before finally being approved for her unemployment.

"I have my kids, my household, bills, everything that still has to be paid or we would be on the streets," said Robyn.

But some have more luck than Robyn -- like Jason Lee Pierce.

According to Nevada's Attorney General's Office, Pierce collected unemployment from May to December of 2010 while staying at the Clark County Detention Center on a domestic battery charge. They say he also collected benefits for six days after being transferred to the Henderson Detention Center on another charge before being released on Jan. 10.

"If they don't have Internet access in jail to do this either, how are they filing their claim? Somebody is doing it for them," said Robyn.

In Pierce's case state officials say it was his girlfriend. A criminal complaint obtained by Contact 13 shows Nina Segura would fill out the necessary forms for Pierce and renew the benefits by phone or computer. The money then showed up on the pair's debt cards or Pierce's books at the jail.

"I'm angry that this has happened, it's frustrating," said Jeff.

After agreeing to plead guilty to false statements or representations to obtain unemployment benefits in May 2012, Pierce was released from custody so he could start paying back the state $4,268 in restitution.

But because he disappeared before his sentencing in September, the state hasn't seen a dime. He was on the run until May 8 when Henderson Police arrested him on an unrelated warrant. The Attorney General's Office says Segura helped the state in their case against Pierce and she too is in the process of paying back more than $4,000 in restitution.

"To contact each jail individually, draw up and get adequate and accurate information for them to stop payment on claims, it's a big task," said Jeff.

Even if the state had the staff to do it, they'd run into roadblocks. In one example in the audit, it describes a request for a detention center's log of inmates and their intake and release dates to match up with the state's system of those on unemployment. The jail denied the state's request, but Jeff says they're planning to introduce legislation in 2015 that would require that information to be turn over.

"Is your technology behind the times for the load that you are facing," asked Darcy.

"Absolutely. The system we are currently using is a 30-year-old system. We're holding it together with rubber bands and bubble gum," explained Jeff.

A new system is coming this summer which should allow advanced cross matching with other databases. Jeff points out that the actual number of inmates who received unemployment is small compared to the thousands of people they pay each week.

"I'd rather focus on the 91% of payments that were good, that helped people keep their homes," said Jeff.

People like Robyn, who can't help but think of that astonishing number in the audit as much as $5 million in improper payments to inmates in just three years.

"You don't feel like the state is falling down on the job here," asked Darcy.

"I don't feel the state is falling down on the job, no. Is it acceptable? No, it's not acceptable to us we try to run a very good and very clean program but it's been a long five years," said Jeff.

The state has created an Unemployment Insurance Task Force to look into fraud cases. The majority of those cases Jeff says are people who are on unemployment get a job, don't bother to report it and continue to collect benefits. 

Click here to check out the state's Employment Security Division wall of shame on unemployment insurance fraud.