Federal prosecutors say 10,000 inmates statewide have filed for more than $100 million in pandemic benefits.By Andy Sheehan

By: KDKA-TV News Staff

PITTSBURGH (KDKA) – Twenty more inmates and accomplices have been charged in connection with the alleged statewide scheme to illegally obtain thousands of dollars in coronavirus unemployment benefits.

KDKA first learned of the scam on an intercepted phone call between homicide defendant Lamont Wilford and his girlfriend discussing illegally getting $9,000 in pandemic unemployment assistance.

Turns out that was only the very tip of the iceberg of a nationwide fraud being committed by inmates in county jails and state and federal prisons, stretching coast to coast.

Thirty-three inmates and their accomplices throughout southwestern Pennsylvania were charged last month, and today almost two dozen more people are facing charges.

Wednesday Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro announced the arrests of 20 inmates and their accomplices, saying the charges are linked to at least two existing organized groups of inmates and outside accomplices in three central and eastern Pennsylvania prisons.

“After announcing our first round of arrests in these COVID unemployment scams, I promised that there were more to come. Today, 20 more individuals have been charged with illegally taking benefits away from hard-working Pennsylvanians who are struggling during this crisis,” said Attorney General Shapiro in a statement.

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“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.”

The two rings were in SCI Benner in Centre County and SCI Mahanoy in Schuylkill County, AG Shapiro says.

Those charged include two serving time for murder and one other inmate who allegedly ran a pandemic unemployment assistance ring, conspiring with his girlfriend on the outside to file for himself and eight other inmates and collecting $150,000 in all.

“When there is money on the line, the scammers go into overdrive,” Shapiro said.

U.S. Attorney Scott Brady has said 10,000 inmates statewide have filed for more than $100 million in pandemic benefits.

Brady says he has been in touch with U.S. attorneys across the country who have uncovered the same massive fraud in their own jails and prisons and will soon be announcing indictments of their own. Shapiro said there are many more to come here in Pennsylvania.

“Our work here is not done,” he said.

He said the ringleaders could face over 60 years behind bars, with their accomplices facing over 40 years in jail.