Prisoners in California, including serial killers on death row, have received hundreds of millions of dollars in aid related to the coronavirus pandemic.
Prosecutors called it one of the largest embezzlements of public funds in the state’s history, as they documented how illegal unemployment claims made on behalf of prisoners had already led to hundreds of millions being paid out.
Investigators, alerted to the illegal claims filed from prisons to access funds released during the pandemic, discovered tens of thousands of claims made on behalf of prisoners, Sacramento County Attorney Anne Marie Schubert said at a press conference.
Many of the applications, made for unemployment benefits in the wake of the coronavirus crisis, used the prisoners' real names, addresses and social security numbers, while others used made up details.
The fraud was made possible by the fact that California, unlike other states, did not cross-reference prisoner lists with unemployment claims filed for loss of income since the coronavirus restrictions, according to Schubert.
"Hundreds of millions of dollars - it could be well over a billion dollars - have already been paid...this will be one of the largest misappropriations of public funds in California's history," Schubert warned.
The confirmed figure of $140 million already paid out to 20,000 prisoners is just a "snapshot", with the real cost potentially much higher.
More than $420,000 has been paid to some 130 people on death row, including serial killer Wayne Ford.Scott Peterson, convicted of killing his pregnant wife, also received funds.
"Frankly, the prisoners are laughing at us," Schubert said.
A newly formed task force has done a partial cross-check in recent weeks, and found that payments had been made to "rapists, child abusers, human traffickers and other violent criminals in our prisons".
Prosecutors said dozens of investigations are ongoing across the state, with a number of people already charged.
California Governor Gavin Newsom called the case "absolutely unacceptable" and pledged "as many resources as possible to investigate and resolve this issue quickly".