Georgia IG: Hundreds of state workers got unemployment benefits in error

Georgia’s inspector general — in a letter to Gov. Brian Kemp’s office — said hundreds of full-time state government workers erroneously received unemployment insurance benefits in 2020 or 2021 as the COVID-19 pandemic swelled jobless claims.

In a report to David Dove, the governor’s executive counsel, Inspector General Scott McAfee said his office used state and federal records to tentatively show at least 280 full-time staffers received $6.7 million in unemployment payments during that period, an estimate he called “conservative.” The average payment was about $23,700, he said.

Federal aid to combat the economic impact of the COVID-19 shutdown of businesses, he noted, resulted in billions of dollars worth of fraudulent unemployment insurance claims.

McAfee said his office has conducted about two dozen interviews with full-time state employees, nearly all since terminated, from across Georgia’s executive branch departments and agencies.

His letter to Kemp’s office said they include:

  • A Department of Labor unemployment claims examiner who received about $31,200. Labor Commissioner Mark Butler said the employee actually received the money while working for another agency. Butler said the employee was fired from the Labor Department job once his agency found out about it.
  • A Department of Revenue tax examiner received about $19,010 while employed with the Office of Special Investigations.
  • Two Department of Human Services supervisors received about $49,730 and $36,575.
  • A Georgia Department of Transportation area manager received about $39,705.
  • Three Department of Corrections employees filed unemployment insurance claims from their state offices while on duty.

“These examples provide a glimpse into the scope and scale of this issue, and each has been referred to the Office of the Attorney General’s prosecution division,” McAfee wrote.

But McAfee said it will be difficult, if not impossible, for his office to interview all the state employees suspected of receiving unemployment insurance payments. The IG’s office has a relatively small staff and works many other cases.

He recommended the General Assembly pass legislation extending the time for prosecuting pandemic-related fraud to provide investigators more time. Currently, the statute of limitations is two years from when potential fraud is discovered if it’s a misdemeanor amount and four years if a felony amount is involved.

“Otherwise, the lack of adequate prosecution and subsequent deterrence will deny restitution to Georgia taxpayers and undermine public confidence in these programs for years,” he wrote.

McAfee also recommended the General Assembly pass legislation granting his office independent authority to subpoena financial and government records. The Georgia House approved legislation granting that power last year, but it never made it out of the Senate.

Butler said he put together a fraud task force in 2020 with federal officials to combat the issue. “We were going after fraud from the beginning,” said Butler, who is about to leave office.

Butler questioned some of McAfee’s findings about state employees and said only the Department of Labor has the legal authority to determine whether unemployment insurance fraud occurred. Butler said his department has cooperated with the office of the inspector general in the past, but he questioned how McAfee obtained claims information in this case to determine that state employees erroneously received benefits.

McAfee’s letter to the governor’s office said his agency used data from the state accounting office and the U.S. Department of Labor as part of its investigation.