CYPRESS – Unemployment benefits are supposed to be life lines to out-of-work Texans.
But the KHOU 11 News I-Team in Houston uncovered millions of dollars in unemployment payments are flowing into jails and prisons across Texas.
All of it comes as the Texas Workforce Commission insists that fighting fraud is one of the agency’s top priorities.
But after we found more than 1,700 cases of inmates collecting unemployment, some want to know if anyone is really watching the system?
Inside her Cypress home, Bonnie Griffin’s former office now resembles a used furniture showroom.
“These are some pieces I put on Craigslist,” Griffin explained.
To her, the chest of drawers and dresser represent more than pieces of a bedroom set.
“I see it as money that will help me pay my bills,” said Griffin.
Two years ago, she lost her job working in the human resources department of a major oil and gas corporation.
Now, Griffin sells her belongings just to pay for the basics.
“It's tough,” she explained.“It's really good to have friends because I can call on them and say what are you having for dinner tonight? That's kind of how it is.”
As she continues her search for a job, Griffin’s weekly $440 unemployment check keeps her afloat.
“I’ll do whatever I can,” Griffin said. “I don’t want to be somebody on the streets.”
Griffin’s case shows the way the state’s unemployment system is supposed to work.
But the 11 News I-Team uncovered another side.
It’s an abuse of the same system that puts unemployment payments in the pockets of criminals while they’re in prison.
In fact, in the last four years, the Texas Workforce Commission identified 1,746 cases of inmates fraudulently collecting benefits.
TWC estimates the total cost of the fraud during that period has been nearly $3.4 million.
It’s something that outrages honest Texans.
“There's no excuse for that,” said Raymond Hall, a retired veteran. “That's money that a man has not worked for.”
Or woman in the case of Tamika Scales.
She was serving time for mail fraud in a prison outside Fort Worth when prosecutors say she collected $5,000 in unemployment.
We showed the figures to Tom “Smitty” Smith with the watchdog group Public Citizen.
“Astounded,” said Smith. “This is an outrage.”
Smith believes common sense dictates that prisoners should be at the top of the list of people to watch for this kind of fraud.
“The people we already know are criminals who will commit fraud, who will lie and cheat and steal and are behind bars, ought to be the place where we are putting our greatest amount of scrutiny,” said Smith.
However, TWC admits that hasn’t happened.
The agency performs monthly comparisons of lists of unemployment recipients to lists of inmates.
But, TWC spokeswoman Lisa Givens says that those checks are limited to inmates serving time in state prisons.
That means if someone was locked up in city or county jails or even federal prison, odds are TWC had no access to that information.
But the 11 News I-Team discovered something else.
Although Tamika Scales pled guilty to theft of government property, her case is the only successful prosecution of an inmate collecting unemployment in the last four years, according to TWC.
Givens says that’s because it costs the state money.
“You are spending resources to prosecute,” explained Givens. “You know, we have to look at how much the amount is and weigh that on what makes sense on the agency to be able to prove.”
“Wouldn’t prosecuting people, even if it is expensive send a message to inmates, this is wrong, and we’re going to prosecute you?” asked the I-Team.
“Yeah, well we certainly want to be able to provide deterrent information,” replied Givens. “We did have a case where we did prosecute.”
“But you had one case out of 1,746 cases,” the I-Team pointed out.
“Right,” said Givens.“Like I said, we have to look at limited resources.”
Limited resources are something Griffin knows all about.
“I only put $350 on it, but it's worth a lot more than that,” she said looking at the furniture she was selling.
She says she’s sickened to see what’s happening to the money she so desperately needs.
“How could you take money away from people who need it?” asked Griffin. “If you need it, collect it. But if you don't need it, it's not yours.”
To combat the problem, TWC recently launched a $450,000 pilot project to better detect fraud. That project includes gaining access to incarceration data from city and county jails, as well as other states’ prison systems.