The Great Recession, which threw millions of Americans out of work, taught the federal government and the states a bitter lesson about unemployment insurance—it’s too damn high and too easy to collect. Years of tax cuts caught the states short, and they borrowed heavily from the federal government to handle the onslaught of claims.
California borrowed more than anyone, and while the state is more generous than most, it participated in draconian cuts while the unemployment ranks swelled with people who had been without work so long, they were no longer counted as unemployed.
Collecting unemployment got tougher for a lot of people—but not Raul Oropeza Lopez, 47, and his wife, Ana Maria Oropeza, 41, both of Delano, 30 miles north of Bakersfield. They picked up $1.8 million on 520 claims over a six-year period, according to an indictment brought by the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of California.
The couple were arrested last week and charged in a 10-count indictment that accused them of running a mail fraud scheme from January 1, 2008, to November 30, 2014. The U.S. attorney said Raul Oropeza, a contracting foreman in the heart of the Central Valley, used his job to obtain names, Social Security numbers and other personal information about legal residents and U.S. citizens, and then gave the identities to undocumented workers.
When the workers were invariably laid off after the growing season, Oropeza and his wife allegedly filed unemployment insurance claims in their names. The claims were submitted on behalf of 70 different identities.
Courthouse News Service, which saw the indictment, said the couple allegedly had checks sent to a number of different addresses and deposited them in bank accounts opened under the assumed identities. They then withdrew money from the accounts and deposited it in their own. Sometimes they shared the money with workers, but usually not.
The couple were released on bond and are due back in Magistrate Judge Sheila K. Oberto’s court on May 4. If convicted, they face up to 20 years in prison and a $250,000 fine on each count, according to the Bakersfield Californian.