The targeting of African-Americans for criminal prosecution continues in 2020

A few weeks ago I described how the new administration under Gov. Evers and AG Kaul was continuing in 2019 to target African-Americans for criminal prosecution in unemployment fraud cases.

A new year in 2020 brings . . . five more prosecutions of African-Americans for unemployment fraud. Indeed, all five of these new cases involve African-Americans in Milwaukee county.

Lennington cases 2019 and 2020

As noted here, initial appearances for these new cases are slated on election day, Feb. 18th. And, these numbers raise the percentage of cases being against African-Americans to more than 80%.

In 2020 (2020!), how and why can this racial targeting still be going on?

Note: the rationale for NOT pursuing these cases for purposes of restitution is put into doubt when the plea deal for one of these cases is being delayed for several months to allow for restitution to be completed. In this light, it is all too apparent that the Department of Workforce Development and the Department of Justice are filing these cases, in part, as a debt collection tool.

African-Americans are again being targeted for criminal prosecution

There is a new governor, a new Attorney General, a new secretary at the Department of Workforce Development, and a new division administrator for unemployment. But, African-Americans in Milwaukee continue to be targeted for criminal prosecutions for alleged unemployment fraud. Indeed, even as the number of cases have declined, the percentage against African-Americans have increased.

I previously posted about these prosecutions in October 2016 and November 2018.

Here are the 2015 and 2016 cases (click on the table to see details):

First cases

And, here are the 2017 and 2018 cases (click on the table to see details):

Westman and Rusch cases by race and gender

As noted in my previous posts, African-Americans made up 70-76% of all criminal cases, even though they made up only 7% of Wisconsin’s state population and only around 27% of the population in Milwaukee County. The percentage of claimants in the state as a whole who are African-American is around 11-12% of all claimants.

Several legislators have asked for information about these cases and an explanation for why African-Americans are being targeted for these prosecutions See, for example, this letter. Numerous groups have also raised concerns. Formal, public responses to these and other queries have been ignored, however.

The new head of criminal cases for the Department of Justice did present to the Unemployment Insurance Advisory Council at the council’s April 18th meeting in 2019. At this meeting, Deputy AG Eric Wilson explained that criminal prosecutions would only be filed where the alleged fraud was sizable, where civil remedies were inadequate, and where there was a history of previous fraud. In addition, cases would no longer only be filed in Dane County (forcing residents from Milwaukee County and other parts of the state to travel to Madison for every event in their case) but would be filed in the county where the defendant resides. See meeting minutes at 3-5.

Starting in the summer of 2019, the Department of Workforce Development under Caleb Frostman and Mark Reihl and the Dep’t of Justice under Josh Kaul started a new round of these prosecutions being handled by Assistant AG Dan Lennington (click on the table to see details):

2019 cases

While the number of prosections is down from previous years (except for 2016, when there were also 11 prosecutions), the percentage of African-Americans being prosecuted is still around 73%. Anglos make up only 18% of these cases, and persons of color combined constitute 82% of all cases (9 out of 11).

Furthermore, the one defendant outside of Milwaukee County (an African-American women in Manitowac) is still being forced to travel to Dane County for her case. So, the declaration in April of 2019 about no longer requiring defendants to travel to Madison for the convenience of prosecutors only applies to the Milwaukee County cases.

And, it gets worse. One 2019 case was almost immediately dismissed by the prosecutor after being filed. In such circumstances, dismissal is usually because the defendant is not competent to stand trial or is deceased (one of the 2018 cases was dismissed soon after filing because the defendant was declared not competent to stand trial). As the Department of Workforce Development charges unemployment concealment/fraud for accidental or unintentional claim-filing mistakes, many, many folks with learning disabilities have been so charged. So, this near immediate dismissal indicates that the Department of Justice is not really applying any new or tougher criteria in deciding which cases to prosecute.

Indeed, the plea deal set for May 29th in one case (delayed by several months to allow for restitution to be complete) indicates that these cases are still largely being pursued as a means of debt collection despite the Deputy AG’s contrary statements back in April 2019 to the Advisory Council.

Finally, there is still no explanation for why African-Americans are being targeted for these cases wholly out of proportion to their presence in the population or even the unemployed. This racial bias has been going on for four+ years now without explanation.

If Lando was in Wisconsin, he would know what is going on here.

Lando and Vader

Wisconsin DOJ announces criminal concealment push

While a new definition of concealment is pending, Wisconsin’s Dep’t of Justice announced on December 15th an “expanded effort to prosecute Unemployment Insurance fraud cases.” The press release accompanying this announcement states:

An expanded effort to prosecute Unemployment Insurance fraud cases has led to an increase in referrals to the Wisconsin Department of Justice (DOJ) from the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development (DWD) from 6 in 2014 to 36 in 2015. In a continuing partnership between the two agencies, investigations conducted by DWD are referred to DOJ where these cases are prosecuted for criminal behavior.

“It’s shameful to see this safety net, intended to help those going through a period of financial difficulty and vulnerability, ripped off by fraudulent unemployment insurance claims,” said Attorney General Brad Schimel. “Those who take advantage of the system and steal our hard-earned tax dollars should be held accountable and prosecuted for their misconduct. I applaud Department of Workforce Development Secretary Reggie Newson for prioritizing this type of crime by hiring additional investigators.”

In 2015, the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development has referred 36 felony cases to DOJ for prosecution. Those cases generally involve situations where people continued to collect unemployment benefits while ineligible because they were employed but failed to report the income. An additional 73 unemployment fraud cases were referred to district attorneys statewide this year.

In one Unemployment Insurance fraud case prosecuted by DOJ, an individual reported wages totaling $2,345.19 during a three year period when in fact, payroll records show the individual actually earned $68,398.36. As a result of this individual’s false statements, he received $42,573 in unemployment benefits to which he was not entitled. In another case, an individual reported no employment for a period of 104 weeks, resulting in more than $19,000 in unemployment benefits for 98 of those 104 weeks. Further investigation revealed this individual had earned $29,169.55 from an employer during 96 of the 98 weeks for which she collected unemployment benefits.

The charges filed against individuals making fraudulent Unemployment Insurance claims can range from misdemeanors to felonies, depending on the amount of money fraudulently collected. Wisconsin State Statutes provide sentencing recommendations for Unemployment Insurance fraud that include full restitution, fines, jail time, and probation.

Having promised to make consumer protection a focal point of his administration, Attorney General Schimel concluded, “DOJ will ensure those in need receive the benefits for which they are eligible and the cheaters and liars who take advantage of public assistance programs do not find refuge in our state. We will continue to partner with other state agencies to root out fraud and hold criminals accountable.”

Certainly actual fraud/concealment should be prosecuted. But, fraud based on nothing more than a simple mistake is NOT unemployment concealment. Misunderstanding of questions or a lack of knowledge about how much total weekly wages were received are currently being charged as concealment by the Department despite no evidence of an actual intent to conceal wages for the purpose of receiving undeserved unemployment benefits.

NOTE: thanks to clinic representation, the claimant charged with failing to report wages he did not know about won his case before the Labor and Industry Review Commission. The Commission explained:

The employee explained his circumstances to department personnel on at least two occasions and thereafter followed the department’s instructions. He reported the wages he could ascertain and relied on the department’s assurances that it would verify his wages with the EMPLOYER and recalculate his benefits to reflect the wages, inclusive of service charge commissions, reported by the employer. The employee was never told to estimate his service charge commissions, which would have been difficult to do given how much they varied from week to week. The employee openly disclosed to the department that he earns hourly base pay plus service charge commissions or, as he referred to them, “tips.” The employee believed that he was filing his weekly claims correctly and that the system was operating as explained.

Unfortunately for the employee, the department’s mechanism for verifying the wages he reported with the EMPLOYER, and obtaining the missing piece of wage information, did not work as expected. Consequently, the employee was paid more in unemployment insurance benefits each week than he should have received. Yet, the erroneous payments were not due to the wrongful or fraudulent actions of the employee. The fact that the department did not anticipate there being discrepancies larger than a few dollars between the amounts reported by the employee and the amounts reported by the EMPLOYER does not transmute the actions taken by the employee in good faith into acts of concealment. The mistakes the employee made when reporting his work for and wages from the EMPLOYER were honest mistakes.

So, it bears repeating: Unemployment is increasingly becoming a trap for claimants, a trap they should avoid by not filing unemployment claims at all.

UI Darth Maul