U.S. Attorney: Those who committed COVID-19 relief fraud will be dealt with harshly

Staff Report

In a guilty plea announcement, U.S. Attorney Ronald C. Gathe Jr. stated those who fraudulently took advantage of COVID-19 relief benefits will be dealt with harshly.

In a news release, the office announced 35-year-old Chaz Ryan Watkins of Springfield pled guilty before U.S. Chief Judge Shelly D. Dick to wire fraud in connection with a fraudulent scheme to obtain pandemic unemployment benefits. As a result of the plea, Watkins faces up to 20 years imprisonment.

According to admissions made as part of the plea, between December 2019, and continuing through at least September 2021, Watkins obtained the personal identifying information of inmates incarcerated in Louisiana prisons and of other individuals, including names, birth dates, and Social Security numbers. 

Watkins reportedly submitted claims for pandemic unemployment assistance benefits to the Louisiana Workforce Commission in the names of the inmates, who were ineligible for such benefits, and in the names of other individuals, often without the individual’s knowledge or consent. 

In these applications, Watkins requested that the benefits be transmitted via direct deposit to his financial accounts or via pre-paid debit cards mailed to addresses under his control, according to the release. 

Once the funds were received, Watkins reportedly withdrew the funds as cash from ATMs at various financial institutions, receiving more than $95,000 in fraudulent benefits.

“Those who take advantage of COVID relief benefits, of any type, will be dealt with harshly by this office," Gathe said. "I want to thank our prosecutors and our federal and state partners for their hard work bringing this offender to justice.”

“Theft of federal pandemic funds intended to help those in need will not be tolerated,” stated Dr. Joseph Cuffari, Inspector General for the Department of Homeland Security, Office of Inspector General. “We will continue to work with our partners at the State of Louisiana OIG, the Department of Labor OIG, and the U.S. Attorney’s Office to identify and aggressively investigate allegations of fraud, protecting the integrity of programs funded by the taxpayer.”

“Once again we see that whenever there is a public emergency, fraudsters will be there to pounce," Louisiana Inspector General Stephen Street said. "Chaz Watkins used the names and personal identifying information of incarcerated prisoners and deceased individuals to fraudulently enrich himself and deprive others who had a legitimate need for these emergency benefits. Now Mr. Watkins must bear the criminal consequences for his actions. The Louisiana Inspector General will continue to relentlessly pursue fraudsters who take advantage of an emergency to steal from the taxpayers.”