RIVERSIDE — A convicted felon from Perris who submitted fraudulent claims to obtain over $4 million in relief payments intended for those left jobless during the coronavirus public health lockdowns was sentenced Friday to five years, three months in federal prison.
Gabriela Llerenas, also known as Maria Sandoval, 49, entered into a plea agreement with the U.S. Attorney’s Office in September, admitting a single count of mail fraud.U.S. District Judge John Holcomb in Riverside imposed the sentence stipulated by the prosecution and defense.
According to prosecutors, from April to October 2020, Llerenas exploited the expanded eligibility for unemployment insurance benefits provided under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security — CARES — Act signed into law by then-President Donald Trump in March 2020.
The defendant filed almost 200 fraudulent relief claims to obtain jobless benefits, resulting in a total $4,298,093 in unemployment insurance payments being disbursed, the U.S. Attorney’s Office said. Holcomb ordered the full amount to be repaid to the government in restitution.
Llerenas’ scheme led to the California Employment Development Department authorizing Bank of America to mail debit cards to claimants with addresses that the defendant provided, including her own home in Perris, her husband’s place of work, her mother’s apartment and the addresses of friends and other family members, according to court papers.
“Llerenas charged the named claimants a fee for filling the applications, which was often paid out of the fraudulently obtained benefits,” according to a U.S. Attorney’s Office statement. “In at least one case, she told the named claimant that she was still employed at EDD and could control the distribution of the unemployment insurance benefits, and then demanded an additional payment for `releasing’ the benefits.”
CARES funding was made available to a wide variety of individuals, including those who identified as independent contractors and self-employed, and the defendant took advantage of that component, falsely listing the bogus claimants as being in those categories, according to the government.
Llerenas obtained some of the names, Social Security numbers and other identifying information she used to submit the fraudulent claims through her prior work as a tax preparer, prosecutors said. A total 197 debit cards were sent out with ready cash available for the defendant to siphon from the U.S. Treasury, according to prosecutors.
In her plea agreement, Llerenas admitted falsely stating on some of the applications that the claimants were residents of California entitled to unemployment insurance benefits administered by EDD, when in fact they lived elsewhere. She additionally admitted that she inflated the incomes that she reported for claimants to maximize benefits.
The scheme was uncovered in the first half of 2021 as part of an investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice’s COVID-19 Fraud Enforcement Task Force, involving multiple agencies.
Llerenas worked at the EDD as a disability insurance program representative, but she resigned in March 2002 after admitting that she had signed off on disability payments for self gain. She received a 37-month federal prison sentence because of the fraud.
State auditors have estimated the losses due to fraudulent CARES unemployment relief funding claims to be at least $20 billion, with money going to parties outside California, prisoners and jail detainees.
Investigations are underway statewide, with multiple cases awaiting adjudication in Riverside County.