A longtime Michigan unemployment worker helped two of her friends who filed more than 123 false claims to steal $1.6 million in benefits, officials said.
A criminal complaint filed Wednesday (May 18) says that between March 2020 and June 2021, Kiannia Mitchell, 32, of Romulus, and Angela Johnson, 47, of Detroit, operated a scheme to file and/or access more than 123 Pandemic Unemployment Assistance claims. The pair stole about $1.6 million in federal funds that were meant for PUA and UIA benefit payments, according to authorities.
Antonia Brown, a state of Michigan employee since 2002, was working as an Unemployment Insurance examiner at the time, officials said. She was assigned to the Benefit Payment Control Unit and responsible for reviewing, approving, and making decisions on PUA and UIA claims.
Brown, 47, of Detroit, accessed about 110 of the claims filed by Mitchell and Johnson, records show. She altered or authorized payment on 101 of them, according to the criminal complaint.
“Brown had no legitimate reason to access or modify, let alone approve, the subject claims, indicating Brown used her position as an employee to inappropriately access and wrongfully release payments tied to the claims associated with Mitchell’s and Johnson’s IP addresses,” investigators found.
Michigan’s UIA uses software that flags certain claims for review when it recognizes a likelihood of fraud, wage discrepancies, or someone making multiple claims. Officials said flags were placed on 101 claims made by Mitchel and Johnson, but Brown removed those flags to release the payments.
Brown was friends with Mitchell and Johnson, and they regularly talked about the fraudulent claims, court records say.
Johnson and Mitchell admitted they received money from third parties to help them with their claims, officials said. They also admitted to paying Brown for her help, according to authorities.
A review of CashApp records revealed all three received numerous payments from multiple people, including payments directly from Mitchell and Johnson to Brown, the criminal complaint says.
Agents investigating this case traced the IP addresses associated with the fraudulent claims back to two homes -- one on Cherokee Drive in Romulus and the other on Ilene Street in Detroit. They said both appeared to be single-family homes with no reason to file dozens of unemployment claims.
While reviewing the claims, investigators found a common link between the two IP addresses. Records showed that a specific Michigan employee, identified as Brown, had accessed, altered, and approved 101 of the claims, according to the criminal complaint.
Officials checked Brown’s work activity and confirmed that she wasn’t authorized to access or approve any of the claims in question, they said. She had also removed many of the fraud stops placed on the claims, authorities said.
Brown’s state of Michigan call center phone system had never reached out to any of the numbers listed on the 101 claims, court records show. Investigators said that means she circumvented the required process in order to conspire with the other two women.
Brown’s actions resulted in the wrongful payment of over $1,661,821.94 in PUA and UIA claims, according to the complaint.
Records show the IP address traced to Mitchell’s home in Romulus accessed over 55 unique PUA and UIA claims. More than $700,000 was paid out on those claims, authorities said.
Brown access and adjusted most of the claims associated with Mitchell’s IP address, resulting in the payment of about $710,489.13, according to officials.
Brown altered a March 2020 claim in Mitchell’s name nine times between September 2020 and February 2021, the criminal complaint says.
In one instance, Brown discarded a fraud investigation that had been placed on the claim, court records show.
Investigators determined that Brown “inappropriately discarded an employer protest alleging that Mitchell was not entitled to PUA benefits.”
Mitchell’s claim wasn’t assigned to Brown, and there’s no record of official contact between the two women, according to authorities. But T-Mobile records for Brown’s personal cellphone confirm she was in direct communication with Mitchell from July 2020 through Aug. 18, 2021, officials said.
Records show the IP address traced to Johnson’s home in Detroit accessed 51 unique PUA and UIA claims. More than $900,000 was paid out on those claims, authorities said.
Johnson’s phone number was used to set up MiLogin accounts for 12 claims, according to the criminal complaint.
Brown accessed and/or approved at least 46 of the 51 claims, resulting in the payment of about $951,332.81, court records show.
Federal officials executed search warrants related to the case on Sept. 29, 2021. All three women were interviewed.
Mitchell admitted to accessing over 55 PUA and UIA claims from her home for friends, family members, and associates, according to the criminal complaint. She said she spoke with Brown and obtained internal information about those claims.
Mitchell told officials that she had obtained each claimant’s username and password before accessing their accounts from her computer, court records show. In most cases, she uploaded information on their behalf, authorities said.
Mitchell said she discussed most of the claims with Brown and admitted to receiving payment from each person she helped, according to officials. She also said she paid Brown via CashApp as a “thank you” for her assistance, the complaint says.
Johnson admitted to helping at least 15-20 people with PUA and UIA claims, with Brown’s help, according to authorities. Brown would remove fraud stops on some of the claims, Johnson said, per court records.
Johnson said she was paid by claimants she assisted and admitted to paying Brown via CashApp for her help, officials said.
During Brown’s interview, she confirmed Mitchell and Johnson are her friends and admitted to speaking with them about some of the claims in question, the criminal complaint says.
Brown said she received payments from both women via CashApp for helping them with PUA and UIA claims, but she said those payments were unrelated to her assistance with those claims, according to officials.
Authorities said Brown admitted to receiving payments directly from some of the claimants themselves.
CashApp records show that during the timeframe of this scheme, Brown received a total of $50,500.09 in payments, including $5,075 from Johnson and $2,325 from Mitchell.
In that same time period, Mitchell received $108,860.91 in CashApp payments, and Johnson received $54,537.50 in CashApp payments, court records show.
The criminal complaint says there is probable cause to charge Brown, Mitchell, and Johnson with mail fraud, wire fraud, conspiracy to commit mail and wire fraud, and fraud concerning programs receiving federal funds.