PITTSBURGH (KDKA) — Federal agents are investigating whether inmates at the Allegheny County Jail are receiving thousands of dollars in pandemic unemployment assistance while awaiting trial.

Are inmates scamming the Pandemic Unemployment Compensation program by collecting payments while awaiting trial? A county homicide detective says he uncovered the plot listing in on a murder suspect’s phone calls.

Lamont Wilford has been in jail for the past eight months on criminal homicide charges in the beating and stomping death of another man. But according to court testimony, Wilford has also been the recipient of up to $9,000 in pandemic unemployment assistance while awaiting trial. And he may not be alone.

A county homicide detective testified Monday that other inmates are receiving payments, and the U.S. Attorney’s Western Pennsylvania COVID-19 Fraud Task Force — consisting of the FBI and federal and state law enforcement officials — has launched its own investigation.

At a bail hearing on Monday, detective Steve Hitchings testified that he learned of the payments after listening to a phone call between Wilford and his girlfriend.

“At which time I learned that he had been involved in a scam of the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, which he received some kind of debit card in the amount of $9,000,” Hitchings testified.

Hitching also testified that to qualify for unemployment, “you have to be available to work, just unable to find a job because of the pandemic.” He goes on to say Wilford is unable to work because he’s is in jail and does not qualify. Hitchings also testified that he listened to the phone calls of other inmates who are also receiving payments.

(Photo Credit: Allegheny County Police)

Wilford remains in jail on a $25,000 straight bond in connection with the November 2020 beating death of 50-year-old Eric Henderson in Natrona Heights. Witness told police that Wilford beat Henderson to the ground and then stomped on him until he was lifeless.

And his criminal history reveals a violent past. He has two prior felony convictions for aggravated assault, and Hitchings testified that Wilford has failed to appear in court six times in the past and should be held without bail, arguing if freed, he could use his unemployment payments to flee the state.