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Seven Philly police dispatchers, one clerk charged with fleecing pandemic unemployment program

The workers, all employed at the time they filed for benefits claiming they had lost their jobs because of the pandemic, stole a combined $73,000 in benefits, prosecutors say.

The exterior of the federal courthouse at 6th and Market Streets in Center City Philadelphia.
The exterior of the federal courthouse at 6th and Market Streets in Center City Philadelphia.Read moreTYGER WILLIAMS / Staff Photographer

Federal authorities have accused seven Philadelphia police dispatchers and one department clerk of filing fraudulent emergency pandemic unemployment claims that netted them a combined $88,000 in benefits before they were caught.

The dispatchers, all employed at the time they filed for benefits claiming they had lost their jobs, face charges of mail fraud and theft of public money outlined in separate indictments unsealed Monday.

Their scheme, according to investigators, began as early as May 2020 and ended in some cases as late as August of this year.

During that period, they were receiving base salaries from their public positions that ranged from roughly $35,000 to $47,000 a year, according to city payroll records.

Those charged include Korey Kinard, 29; Shannon Reynolds, 25; Najah Harrell, 32; Yarelis Feliciano, 28; Monica Pelzer, 45; and Keeley Maude, 23 — all of Philadelphia — as well as Tashika White, 50, of Cheltenham. Prosecutors identified the clerk as Paulette Johnson, 55, of Philadelphia.

All turned themselves in and were released after an initial hearing in federal court Tuesday. Each could face prison time if convicted.

It was not immediately clear from court records whether any of those charged had retained attorneys.

“Thieves who attempt to take these funds are taking advantage of others’ misfortune — ripping them off while also ripping off all taxpayers who fund the program,” U.S. Attorney Jennifer Arbittier Williams said in a statement Tuesday. “As alleged, these eight defendants fraudulently obtained funds that could have helped struggling individuals.”

Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw announced she will suspend the eight employees for 30 days with the intent to dismiss.

“The Office of the Inspector General has been working with the FBI and [U.S. Attorney’s Office] on these prosecutions,” Kevin Lessard, the city’s director of communications, said. “The OIG and the City at-large are staunchly committed to holding accountable — whether through criminal, civil or administrative channels — any employee who engaged in this type of conduct.”

Since last year, millions of Pennsylvania residents have lost work because of coronavirus shutdown orders and the extended economic impacts of the pandemic, forcing many to rely upon the federal Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program until it ended in September.

The program offered broader benefits to self-employed people and others left out of traditional unemployment, providing hundreds of dollars a week in income.

But from the beginning, the program has been hard hit by fraudsters who took advantage of the chaos, and relaxed rules, including the ability, initially, for claimants to self-certify their eligibility without supporting documents.

Federal prosecutors across Pennsylvania have indicted at least 90 people with defrauding the program in recent months and the Pennsylvania Attorney General’s Office has charged an additional 48.

Several inmates in the Chester County prison are among those facing charges. All were incarcerated through the period in which they had claimed to be unemployed.

Nationally, the inspector general for the U.S. Department of Labor has estimated that at least $87.3 billion in fraudulent and improper payments have been issued.