Eight Georgians charged in $30 million unemployment benefits scheme

About 5,000 fraudulent claims were allegedly made to the state’s Department of Labor

Eight Georgians allegedly stole at least $30 million in unemployment benefits during the pandemic, even as unemployed residents struggled to get the payments they were entitled to, according to the United States Department of Justice.

The defendants allegedly took personal information from several sources, including by paying an ex-employee of Emory Healthcare to unlawfully obtain patient records from December of 2020 to December of 2021, according to Emory officials. The United States Department of Labor notified Emory of the incident, and the employee, Edith Nate Hicks, has since been terminated.

Hicks, 45, allegedly stole records of at least 1,600 patients’ from internal databases, Department of Justice officials said in a statement. A spokesperson for the health care system said they conducted an investigation and found that the ex-employee unlawfully accessed the patient records. The DOL and DOJ said she also disclosed several hundred patients’ demographic information to the other defendants.

According to a spokesperson for Emory Healthcare, Emory “found no indication nor were we provided any information by the DOL and DOJ to suggest that any medical histories, tests and laboratory results, diagnosis and treatment plans, or insurance information were involved.”

This incident is not isolated to Georgia. States have dealt with countless fraudulent claims for unemployment benefits. In New York state, for example, an audit found that at least $11 billion in improper payments were made during the pandemic. During the pandemic, many residents in Georgia and across the country waited months for unemployment benefits and struggled to even reach staffers for help with their claims.

A state audit in the spring condemned the Georgia Department of Labor, pointing out multiple problems that exacerbated delays. A spokesperson for the DOL called the report flawed and said the department had been hampered by an unprecedented surge of claims, among other issues.

In this case, the defendants allegedly created fake employers and lists of purported employees, and filed more than 5,000 fraudulent unemployment insurance claims with the state’s labor department. They are accused of stealing at least $30 million in unemployment benefits. Other people were allegedly involved, but were not named by the Department of Justice.

Emory officials say they are in the process of notifying patients whose information is believed to have been involved in this incident. Emory is giving those people a one year service to detect possible misuse of personal information.

According to court documents, the other defendants, all from Georgia, are Tyshion Nautese Hicks, 30, of Vienna; Shatara Hubbard, 34, of Warner Robins; Torella Wynn, 30, of Cordele; Macovian Doston, 29, of Vienna; Kenya Whitehead, 35, of Cordele; A’Darrion Alexander, 27, of Warner Robins; and Membrish Brown, 27, of Vienna.

The stolen unemployment funds were disbursed through prepaid debit cards mailed to addresses of their choice, mostly either in Cordele and Vienna or in neighboring towns.

Some defendants are charged with harsher crimes than others. The charges include conspiracy to commit mail fraud, which carries a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison; aggravated identity theft, which carries a mandatory two-year prison sentence; as well as money laundering, which carries a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison.

Hicks, the former Emory employee, was charged by criminal information with conspiracy to commit mail fraud, and she pleaded guilty to this offense on Nov. 15. Hicks faces a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison. A sentencing date has not been scheduled.

Georgians who believe they are victims in this case should contact the Fraud Section’s Victim Witness Unit toll-free at (888) 549-3945, or by email at victimassistance.fraud@usdoj.gov.