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Michigan UIA contract worker accused of stealing $2 million in unemployment funds

Posted at 5:22 PM, Jul 23, 2020
and last updated 2021-01-05 19:49:26-05

DETROIT, Mich. — A Detroit woman faces federal charges tonight including wire fraud and money laundering accused of stealing more than $2 million in unemployment benefits.

Investigators say she did it all from the comfort of her home.

The shocking part is that she worked for the UIA as a contract employee. Documents allege she used that access to steal millions and buy electronics, jewelry and luxury designer handbags.

“The defendant is innocent until proven guilty. This complaint only has allegations at this point,” said Matthew Schneider, US Attorney for the Eastern District of Michigan.

His office is prosecuting and investigating Brandi Hawkins, 39, accused in the fraud scheme.

“And it uncovered what appears to be a person who was entrusted with the authority of the state of Michigan and given the authority and trust that the people put in her to faithfully handle unemployment insurance claims,” said Schneider.

The federal complaint obtained by FOX 17 accuses Hawkins of verifying fake claims that filed for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA), which includes an extra $600 a week under the CARES Act.

“Look, I have people in my own family who are unemployed, okay, so we know what that’s like,” said Schneider. “We know what it’s like for people who need to rely upon the unemployment insurance system, and when somebody takes advantage of that for their own personal greed and greedy gain. It’s really disgusting.”

In April, Hawkins was hired as a contract employee for the state to work as an unemployment insurance examiner. The position is responsible for reviewing, processing, and verifying claims.

Hawkins worked from her home in Detroit using a state computer.

Her log-in “Hawkinsb3” included a password and a six-digit security code that randomly changed with log-ins. No one else had her specific credentials.

Hawkins was terminated on June 17 before the fraud was discovered but still had access to the state’s UIA system until early July. We’re still trying to figure out how that happened.

“But I think we have to ask our state partners how is it that you can continue to commit crimes after you’re not longer supposed to have access to (the system),” said Schneider.

Investigators say Hawkins “discarded” fraud stops on two accounts, basically paying out claims flagged for potential fraud.

When reviewing her work items and call logs, it was found that she had no legitimate reason to access the accounts, let alone modify them. She also disregarded notes on the claims that said “do not pay; do not close fraud investigation; refer to fraud unit if claimant contacts agency.”

“We want that word to get out there. Don’t do this. Don’t steal money from the state, because you’re not stealing from the state, you’re stealing from the people,” said Schneider. “You’re taking money away from people who truly deserve it when they need it.”

An audit of Hawkins’ logs found that after her termination she accessed more than 400 separate claims and fraudulently released more than $2 million.

Investigators say it was intentional and targeted – and the money was supposed to go to those who need it most.

“It’s a case of literally taking money and taking food out of the mouths of hungry people who are disadvantaged because they lost their jobs,” Schneider told FOX 17.

Twelve of the claims included the initials “J.R.” with 12 different Social Security numbers. All of them, though, were linked to the same bank account.

On July 7, authorities searched Hawkins' home and seized several cell phones and tablets, along with multiple high-end designer bags and luxury goods.

They also recovered $238,000 in cash and thousands of dollars in receipts for clothing, jewelry, and electronics, plus a backpack with a Bank of America debit card for ATM withdrawals, and several debit cards in her wallet.

“If you are a criminal who is doing something like that, you’ve gotta be acting fast,” said Schneider. "You’ve got to be acting expeditiously, you’ve got to be acting carefully, and that’s one of the problems we’re uncovering here."

In some cases, as soon as the money hit one account, the funds were transferred to separate bank accounts under different names. So there’s a chance she did not act alone.

“We’re watching, we are following these cases all across the country,” Schneider said. "We might be in a pandemic, but that doesn’t mean that law enforcement stops. In fact, we have escalated our law enforcement efforts, because criminals are taking advantage of the pandemic."

“When we’re in a pandemic and people are really suffering, criminals step up to the plate. And they expand their criminal dealings. And this is a situation where the defendant knew that we were in a pandemic situation, we knew we had higher unemployment. Michigan had around 15 percent unemployment. And the defendant exploited that.”

In fact, US Attorney Schneider urges everyone to be vigilant and not give out and personal information. “We’re seeing fake counterfeit N95 masks. We’re seeing people who are peddling fake cures for the coronavirus. We’re seeing cases where people are getting calls and emails saying, ‘Give me your bank account number so that I can route your stimulus funds,' and it’s all a scam.”

If found guilty, Hawkins faces up to 20 years behind bars.

The UIA tells me she was hired by a state contractor who did perform a background check. But because it’s an ongoing investigation, UIA could not comment further.

Bank of America declined to comment for the story.