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State College Woman, Benner Inmates Accused of Illegally Obtaining COVID-19 Unemployment Benefits

by on September 23, 2020 2:26 PM

A State College woman and nine Benner state prison inmates were among 20 people charged statewide on Wednesday for allegedly providing false information to illegally obtain more than $300,000 in COVID-19 unemployment benefits, according to Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro.

The charges are a result of an ongoing investigation into schemes involving inmates and accomplices to allegedly filing for the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, a federal program funded by the CARES Act that provided an additional $600 a month to individuals who became unemployed during the COVID-19 pandemic. In August, the U.S. Department of Justice and the state Attorney General's Office announced charges against 33 people and said thousands more may have been involved in the schemes.

“After announcing our first round of arrests in these COVID unemployment scams, I promised that there were more to come,” Shapiro said in a statement on Wednesday. “Today, 20 more individuals have been charged with illegally taking benefits away from hard-working Pennsylvanians who are struggling during this crisis. These arrests are not the end of our investigation, and I’ll continue working with my colleagues at the federal level to track down those heading these schemes, along with those who are willfully participating and breaking the law.”

According to the AG's office, the charges on Wednesday involved two rings of inmates and accomplices. The larger of the two was at SCI-Benner and the other was operated out of SCI-Mahanoy in Schuylkill. Another six inmates at SCI-Phoenix in Montgomery County, who had no known link to an organized ring, also were charged, Shapiro said.

In Centre County, Adele Moore, of State College, and inmate James G. Neff Zonge allegedly began operating the fraud ring out of SCI-Benner after Moore successfully applied for COVID-19 unemployment benefits on behalf of Neff Zonge.

"Moore and Neff Zonge established a system in which Moore would use an inmate’s personal identifying information, apply for COVID-19 benefits from her address, and then give the inmate a portion of the collected benefits," a news release from the AG's office stated. "Moore would often keep the majority of the money for her own personal use."

The alleged scheme obtained $153,470 in fraudulent COVID-19 unemployment benefits, Shapiro said.

Individuals were eligible for PUA benefits if they were unemployed for reasons related to the COVID-19 pandemic and available to work. To receive the benefits, they had to file a claim through the PUA website, providing personal identifying information and answers to eligibility questions.

"Individuals who are serving a sentence of incarceration, or who are detained pending a criminal trial, are neither available for work nor unemployed for reasons related to the COVID-19 pandemic," the release said. "As a result, they are not eligible to receive PUA benefits for the period of their incarceration."

Shapiro said applying for the COVID-19 unemployment benefits while either incarcerated or employed violates state and federal laws and those found guilty face prison time and financial penalties. Ringleaders, Shapiro said, can face 60 years in prison and co-conspirators 40.

Those charged in the alleged Benner ring include

- Adele B. Moore allegedly first filed for PUA for herself and for inmate Jacob Snook. Moore then conspired with Neff Zonge to file PUA for seven other inmates. Moore received a total of approximately $7,000 from the inmates for filing the applications and from two of the inmate debit cards that she received at her State College residence.

- James G. Neff Zonge, a Benner inmate from State College, allegedly first had Adele Moore attempt to file PUA for him. His PUA was filed but not approved. Neff Zonge then allegedly provided the names and needed personal identifying information for seven other inmates. Neff Zonge received approximately $3000.00 from the inmates for help filing PUA, according to the AG's office

Benner inmates who allegedly provided personal information to Neff Zonge to have Moore file for PUA for them were:

- Todd A. Butler, from Columbiana, Ohio, allegedly received $9,930 in unemployment compensation payments.

- Michael C. Lyter, from Harrisburg, allegedly received $12,315 in UC payments.

- Ronald E. Baker, from Glen Rock, allegedly received $13,110 in UC payments.

- Derek L. Young,  from Watsontown, allegedly received $9,930 in UC payments.

- James E. Sullivan, from Hawley,  allegedly received $9,930 in UC payments.

- James M. Leidig, from Chambersburg, allegedly received $22,245 in UC payments.

- Joseph E. Klecha, from Montrose, allegedly received $12,315 in UC payments.

- Jacob P. Snook, from Bellefonte, allegedly received 10,125 in UC payments.

At Mahanoy, Wendy Danfora, who is not incarcerated, allegedly took information from her boyfriend, inmate Markal Munford, and two other inmates to obtain $109,000 in benefits.

Six inmates at Phoenix provided information to non-incarcerated individuals to apply for PUA. Two were never paid.  

Geoff Rushton is managing editor for Contact him at [email protected] or find him on Twitter at @geoffrushton.
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