State employee manipulated pandemic unemployment claims

Published 12:00 am Friday, March 3, 2023

Customer service rep cleared claims for two relatives, others

In 2020, because of the COVID-19 pandemic and the increased unemployment of millions of Americans, Congress passed various programs to address the crisis, including the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program. 

The PUA program expanded and loosened eligibility unemployment requirements for recipients. Consequently, the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services, the agency responsible for distributing PUA benefits in Ohio, received an unprecedented number of unemployment compensation claims. 

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This increase in claims necessitated ODJFS to hire intermittent and temporary contracted workers to process the claims. ODJFS disbursed approximately $7.6 billion in pandemic unemployment benefits and later, ODJFS identified millions of dollars of the disbursals as fraudulent. To address the rampant fraud connected to the PUA program, an investigative group was established that consisted of the Office of the Ohio Inspector General, Ohio State Highway Patrol, United States Department of Labor – Office of Inspector General and ODJFS.

In February 2022, the Office of the Ohio Inspector General received a complaint from ODJFS alleging that Deanna Rooney, a customer service representative subcontracted to work on PUA claims through Bucher & Christian Consulting, improperly cleared fraud issues for several claims, including two associated with relatives. ODJFS flagged the two claims belonging to Rooney’s relatives due to a lack of documentation required to validate a claimant’s identity and income, resulting in benefit overpayment redeterminations of $16,121 and $7,824.

The Office of the Ohio Inspector General obtained and reviewed ODJFS records related to Rooney’s improper release of PUA funds. 

Records indicated Rooney had noted in the two claims that the proper documentation was provided by the claimants and subsequently redetermined the claims as “eligible.” 

Investigators evaluated the two claims in question and confirmed the required documents had not been provided by the claimants and that Rooney negated the overpayment obligations of the two claimants. 

Additionally, investigators determined the two claimants were relatives of Rooney. Investigators concluded Rooney’s actions were unauthorized and outside of the scope of her assigned ODJFS job duties. 

The report of investigation is being referred to the Franklin County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office and the Ohio Auditor of State for consideration.