ALLEGHENY COUNTY, Pa. (KDKA) — Law enforcement says Allegheny County Jail inmates collecting pandemic unemployment assistance goes well beyond the jail.

Federal agents are investigating whether inmates at the county jail are receiving thousands of dollars from the Pandemic Unemployment Compensation program while awaiting trial. Investigators now say there is evidence that inmates are collecting these illegal payments in jails and prisons across the state and perhaps even beyond.

“We believe that this goes outside the Allegheny County Jail,” said Lt. Venerando Costa of the Allegheny County Police Department. “That is is through the entire corrections systems in the state of Pennsylvania.”

KDKA’s Andy Sheehan: Inmate all over the state are doing this?

Costa: That’s what we believe.

County detectives learned of the alleged scam by intercepting a phone call from homicide defendant Lamont Wilford, who discussed getting $9,000 in pandemic unemployment with his girlfriend despite being in jail since November. The girlfriend tells Wilford she feels bad about the payments, telling Wilford they’re illegal.

Wilford: This is a blessing to us. We need it.
Woman: No, it’s really not.
Wilford: You don’t want it?
Woman: I don’t think it’s right.
Wilford: What do you mean you don’t think it’s right? Ain’t nothing wrong with it.
Woman: Ok, fine whatever.

County detectives say they listened to calls by other inmates who talked of getting payments from an outside contact who filed for the unemployment in their names and then collected a fee.

When turning this information over to the federal authorities, detectives learned that the U.S. Department Labor is already investigating inmates across the state and the country for their involvement in similar operations. Inmates are not eligible for these payments because an applicant needs to be able to look for a job and be able to work, should a job become available.

Costa: It’s taxpayer money that was supposed to go to people who are in need, who were actually looking for a job but couldn’t find one when the pandemic started.
Sheehan: And these inmates, obviously, can’t be looking for jobs since they’re in jail?
Costa: Right, the inmates who were in jail when the pandemic started were unavailable to work and weren’t ineligible to receive taxpayer funds.