California may have paid up to $1 billion in fraudulent unemployment claims filed on behalf of prison and jail inmates in what prosecutors are calling “the most significant fraud on taxpayer funds in California history.”

The state paid more than 35,000 claims under state prisoners’ names, with one inmate collecting nearly $49,000, a group of district attorneys and a federal prosecutor said at a Tuesday press conference. California also paid more than $421,000 to 133 Death Row inmates — including Scott Peterson, a San Quentin prisoner convicted of killing his wife and unborn child. Some of the claimants used pseudonyms like “Poopy Britches” or “John Doe,” and most targeted federal benefits distributed by the state.

In a sharply worded letter, the district attorneys asked Gov. Gavin Newsom to get personally involved and immediately implement changes at the state unemployment department — including a system to cross-check prison and jail rosters against unemployment claimants. California is one of 15 states that doesn’t have such a system, according to the letter.

  • Anne Marie Schubert, Sacramento County district attorney: “We are paying hundreds of millions of dollars in the name of serial killers, rapists and child molesters. We need to turn the spigot off.”
  • Newsom: “I have directed the Office of Emergency Services to stand up a task force to coordinate state efforts and support investigations by local district attorneys.”

It’s just the latest task force Newsom has launched in response to persistent problems at the Employment Development Department, where 590,000 claims remain backlogged. A task force in September shut down EDD for two weeks in order to implement a tool to speed up processing times and mitigate fraud. But in October, the agency froze around 358,000 debit cards amid investigations into widespread fraud — and a state report released last week found EDD continues to leave millions at risk of identity fraud.

EDD’s director is retiring Dec. 31, leaving Newsom to appoint her successor at a critical moment for the agency and hundreds of thousands of Californians awaiting benefits.

______________

The coronavirus bottom line: As of 9 p.m. Tuesday night, California had 1,125,699 confirmed coronavirus cases and 18,769 deaths from the virus, according to a CalMatters tracker.

Also: CalMatters regularly updates this pandemic timeline tracking the state’s daily actions. And we’re tracking the state’s coronavirus hospitalizations by county.


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1. Looming cliff as aid expires

Image via iStock

Speaking of benefits, many state and federal programs that have kept struggling Californians and businesses afloat are set to expire in the next few months — raising questions about how the government plans to patch a rapidly fraying safety net. Two federal unemployment benefit programs will dry up Dec. 26 — impacting around 750,000 Californians — and the Golden State’s eviction moratorium is slated to expire Jan. 31, potentially forcing more than 2 million residents out of their homes, CalMatters’ Nigel Duara reports.

  • Jacques Gene, a construction foreman: “Right now, I don’t know where I’m going to find money. If I was a single guy, I’d figure something out, live in my truck, crash on people’s couches. But I’ve got kids I’ve got to think about.”

And without another federal stimulus package, many of California’s 5 million small businesses may not survive. Compared to January, the number of open small businesses has dropped nearly 29%, the Los Angeles Times reports. Although grants are available, there simply aren’t enough to go around. In Los Angeles alone, 140,000 small businesses applied for grants that only 7,000 will receive.

2. California vaccine update

Image via iStock

Even as California’s coronavirus cases and hospitalizations surge, there’s good news on the horizon — the first batch of vaccines could arrive in early December. And because manufacturers and the federal government will likely distribute doses based on state conditions and population size, California could potentially receive the highest number of doses, CalMatters’ Ana Ibarra and Barbara Feder Ostrov report. Still, it will be a while before the vaccine is widely available. California is prioritizing 2.4 million health care workers for the first round, followed by those living in congregate settings, essential workers and higher-risk individuals. Meanwhile, the state is working to acquire 16 ultra-cold temperature freezers and 61 smaller freezers to store the vaccine — and the freezers are already in short supply.

  • David Simon of the California Hospital Association: “They are in many cases back-ordered until the spring.”

3. How CA reached historic voter turnout

Tommy Nickerson uses tongs to collect a ballot at the Alameda County courthouse on Nov. 3, 2020. Photo by Anne Wernikoff for CalMatters

Momentum is building to make voting by mail permanent in California after an election that went much more smoothly than expected and saw voter turnout reach at least 80%, CalMatters’ Lewis Griswold reports. Elections officials say the future of voting in California will likely involve mailing ballots to every registered voter, while maintaining vote centers for in-person voting, same-day registration, language assistance, accessible voting machine use and replacement ballots. However, some counties have balked at the cost of mailing ballots to every voter and running vote centers, some of which are required to be open for 11 days.

  • Newsom: “I think making voting easier, providing more choice and more opportunity is fabulous.”
  • Kim Alexander, president of the California Voter Foundation: “The idea has merit but you have to talk about funding. I didn’t see that in the announcement.”

For a comprehensive post-mortem of how Election Day went across the state — from battling misinformation to enforcing pandemic safety protocols — check out Lewis’ report.


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The Year of Loss

The pandemic has touched all of us. We have lost loved ones. Our health and mental health have been challenged. We have lost jobs, income, housing, stability. Our children have missed out on school, birthday parties and graduations.

Each of us has a story to tell about the impact of this past year. CalMatters wants to hear yours. What have you lost in 2020? Fill out our survey.


CalMatters commentary

CalMatters columnist Dan Walters: 81% of California voters believe taxes are too high — perhaps due in part to seemingly endless reports of governmental incompetence.

As a Thanksgiving treat, here’s another column from Dan Walters: The competition for Newsom’s senatorial appointment typifies identity politics — and ignores what should be the most important factor.

Crucial connections: Amid a challenging holiday season, you could save someone’s life by reaching out and starting a conversation, writes Ashley Mills of the Mental Health Services Oversight and Accountability Commission.

Guiding California’s economic recovery: A strong and resilient economy must have equity at its core and prioritize communities often left behind, argues Julie Su, California’s labor secretary.

Unfair rejections: Disconnects between K-12 and higher education data systems can lead students to have their college eligibility determined incorrectly, write Loren Blanchard of CSU and Martinrex Kedziora of the Moreno Valley Unified School District.


Other things worth your time

Tobacco industry submits signatures on California referendum to block sales of flavored products. // Los Angeles Times

Sacramento sheriff’s office breaks COVID enforcement commitment after collecting millions in federal relief funding. // CapRadio

Nursing home outbreaks in Fresno and Madera counties among worst in California. // Fresno Bee

California faces shortage of in-home caregivers as holidays approach. // CapRadio

Thanksgiving travel in SoCal to see biggest drop in 12 years. // Orange County Register

Fire risk returns to SoCal with Santa Ana winds forecast for Thanksgiving weekend. // Los Angeles Times

California turkeys will likely trot north as climate warms, but may not leave suburbs. // CapRadio


See you Monday. Have a happy and safe Thanksgiving!

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Emily Hoeven writes the daily WhatMatters newsletter for CalMatters. Her reporting, essays, and opinion columns have been published in San Francisco Weekly, the Deseret News, the San Francisco Business...