El designado secretario del Trabajo, Carlos Rivera Santiago, era para el 2017 el secretario auxiliar de Menores y Familia del Departamento de Justicia.
Carlos Rivera Santiago. (Teresa Canino Rivera)

Federal and local authorities are investigating nearly 100,000 Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) fraud cases, which includes different theft schemes, such as identity theft or lying in filling out applications.

Federal agents at the Department of Labor and Human Resources (DTRH, Spanish acronym) analyze and audit applications for possible fraud schemes while others inquire about identity theft cases detected by the Police after people cashed checks they were not entitled to.

Meanwhile, the federal District Attorney’s office in San Juan and the Department of Justice are in conversations to process what is expected to be a flood of cases. There are so many that they could reach court in 2021.

“According to the information the Labor secretary provided us, some 307,000 people applied for and received PUA benefits, so there must be almost 100,000 people who have somehow benefited from PUA funds without being entitled to them,” Justice Secretary Inés Carrau told El Nuevo Día.

“Based on what the Secretary of Labor says that there are only about 15,000 public employees, (without counting) the rest of the population that requested (the benefit), that is why I make this calculation based on the information we obtained. There must be almost 100,000 people involved in this,” Carrau added.

There could be more than 1,000 minors that have applied for the PUA benefit, even though that program is not available for minors.

“We’re talking about thousands. There are more than 1,000 cases, easily,” said DTRH Secretary Carlos Rivera Santiago.

He added that, preliminarily, they have seen PUA applications submitted by minors who are part of a family or group of acquaintances. “In the system, both the address and Social Security are verified. Sometimes, they are even entire groups or families. We are detecting all this as we organize this,” Rivera Santiago said.

He noted that investigations take into consideration if adults participated in the scheme and how.

“There may be cases that involve adults helping them when it comes to cashing a check or making a deposit. Those are situations that involve an adult,” Rivera Santiago said. “So all those angles are being investigated.”

Meanwhile, the acting Justice Secretary agreed with Rivera Santiago that the total number of public employees who illegally benefited from PUA, which is funded by the U.S. government, has yet to be determined.

For Rivera Santiago there could be more than 10,000 cases, but he explained that there are instances in which the agency’s system identifies someone as a government employee, but then they verified that this person is no longer working in the public sector.

“You have to make sure that those lists are up to date,” Carrau said. “We got a list of people who were allegedly working for the Justice Department (who applied for PUA), but when we checked with Human Resources, we saw that they were no longer there,” Carrau said.

However, Rivera Santiago did not rule out that some of those might have been public employees whose identities had been stolen and said there was a case like that at DTRH.

So far, the Secretary maintained the preliminary estimate of almost 10,000 PUA applications from public employees, who are not entitled to that benefit because they are on an agency payroll, regardless of whether they have lost any additional income to that.

The challenge of processing the cases

“There are different schemes and modalities, from the one who steals identities, those who go back to work and do not inform it, minors who enter the system and those in prison,” Rivera Santiago said.

“In the case of inmates, we have historically heard of different fraud cases committed from jails, such as identity theft, but they need help from someone (from the outside),” he maintained. “It happened to us with the unemployment (benefit) after Hurricane María.”

The investigation is anticipated to be of such magnitude that they have already implemented an interagency effort to process the cases.

Carrau and Rivera Santiago indicated that they have met on several occasions to coordinate logistics.

The acting Justice Secretary explained that the Special Investigations Bureau (NIE, Spanish acronym) will be in charge of processing the cases of public employees while the rest of the cases will be handled by the Police, whose Bank Robbery and Fraud Division has dealt with the cases of people arrested in financial institutions.

The police had arrested 67 people attempting to cash illegally obtained PUA checks until last Saturday. With those interventions, the Bank Robbery and Fraud Division has recovered $414,196.

“Those cases have been filed (in court). We have an average between 10 and 11 cases a week, and we are setting a strategy to increase the number,” said Lt. Wilson Lebron, commander of the Assistant Superintendent of Criminal Investigations (SAIC, Spanish acronym).

About fraud schemes detected in the DTRH, Rivera Santiago added that they are working on the logistics to send the referrals to Justice “in an orderly manner because there are many cases”. “Referrals have already begun, and the cases are being investigated. The volume is quite high,” he said.

According to Carrau, a special task force was created to specifically handle those cases. Prosecutors from the Financial Crimes Division of the Justice Department are leading that group. She said that staff will work directly with prosecutors in each of the 13 districts where the cases would be filed.

When asked if they would be able to process all of this before the end of 2020, Carrau said that, because of the number of cases, she believes “that it’s going to take a little longer.”

As part of that process, the acting Justice Secretary said she held meetings “also with federal authorities to work in a coordinating to expedite the filing of charges as soon as possible. We are in negotiations, starting to coordinate with them,” she added.

According to the DTRH secretary, a “task force” of federal officials audits applications and investigates possible fraud schemes with PUA.

In addition to holding talks with the U.S. Attorney’s Office, Rivera Santiago said the task force includes agents from the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the Internal Revenue Service, and the U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of the Inspector General (OIG-DoL).

He noted that the FBI has a special agent in the DTRH for this investigation.

Meanwhile, El Nuevo Día confirmed that the FBI investigates identity theft committed by people arrested by the police when cashing checks at banks, as Lieutenant Lebron said this newspaper.

Lebron told El Nuevo Día last week that they have identified the sale of fake driver’s licenses for up to $500.

“With the federal authorities, we don’t have to make referrals because they have an agent, and besides the OIG audits us,” Rivera Santiago explained. “They assume jurisdiction.” “The FBI has its hands full with these investigations in Puerto Rico and other states,” he said.

Millions of dollars recovered

Rivera Santiago pointed out that so far the DTRH has recovered $12.5 million since they began the fraud alert campaign. He also highlighted that since March, applications were made through a form in which people “swore” that the information was true. Recently, they began to use the system called “FastPUA,” which validates the information with the Treasury Department.

Rivera Santiago said it is “suspicions” that before they had over 300,000 requests and, with the new system, the number dropped to 60,000.

“It is worrisome that with so many people in real need, others come and want to play smart and cut others off from receiving the funds they need for their family,” Carrau said. “We are talking about people who do not need to receive this money to live and use it to spend on luxuries. It also affects the access to federal funds, because when they see that people committing fraud to use them, that can have an impact on the funds Puerto Rico might receive.”