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Press Release

Two Virginia prisoners sentenced for pandemic unemployment scam

For Immediate Release
U.S. Attorney's Office, Eastern District of Virginia

NORFOLK, Va. – A previously incarcerated Chesapeake man and a state prisoner were sentenced for their participation in a scheme to fraudulently obtain federal unemployment benefits related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

During the pandemic, the federal government expanded and extended unemployment benefits for impacted workers. At that time, Raton J. Tharp, 37, was an inmate at Wallens Ridge State Prison in Virginia. Tharp and George Napoleon Cuffee Jr., 31, conspired to apply for benefits and use the personal identifying information of others to make applications in their names for benefits for which they did not qualify.

Tharp provided the information of other Wallens Ridge inmates to Cuffee, who used that information when he was not incarcerated to apply for fraudulent unemployment benefits in those inmates’ names. Cuffee also provided false information in the applications, including, for example, false addresses, telephone numbers, email accounts, and last employers. Last employers were sometimes completely fabricated, such as “Napoleon Homes,” borrowing from Cuffee’s middle name. 

In addition to the scheme with Tharp, Cuffee also unlawfully obtained and used the information of six non-inmates for fraudulent unemployment claims.  They did not have knowledge or agree to their information being used. 

From Aug. 12, 2020, to Oct. 28, 2020, Cuffee was incarcerated at the Chesapeake Sheriff’s Office Correctional Center.  During that time, he directed associates who were not incarcerated to continue recertifying the fraudulent claims to ensure the payments were uninterrupted.

Cuffee also fraudulently filed his own unemployment claim. Cuffee falsely stated his occupation as “real estate broker,” and attested that he could not work due to COVID-19 quarantines. For his own claim, Cuffee received $18,162, of which $2,906 covered time during which Cuffee was incarcerated.

Cuffee and Tharp coordinated how to split and distribute the proceeds of the fraud. Cuffee and Tharp were not truthful with the inmates about the claims’ true value, and agreed to keep a large portion of claim proceeds for themselves. The conspiracy resulted in eight successful claims for $75,960 using other inmates’ information filed by Cuffee, and six more claims for $81,362 using non-inmate information, for a total of $187,928.

Tharp pled guilty on Jan. 25 to conspiracy to commit wire fraud. On May 28, he was sentenced to three years and four months in prison.

Cuffee pled guilty on Feb. 2 to conspiracy to commit wire fraud and aggravated identity theft. He was sentenced today to five years and eight months in prison.

Jessica D. Aber, U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia; Derek W. Gordon, Special Agent in Charge of Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) Washington, D.C., and Ajay Lall, Acting Inspector in Charge of the Washington Division of the U.S. Postal Inspection Service, made the announcement after sentencing by U.S. District Judge Jamar K. Walker.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Rebecca Gantt prosecuted the case.

A copy of this press release is located on the website of the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Virginia. Related court documents and information are located on the website of the District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia or on PACER by searching for Case No. 2:3-cr-103.


Press Officer

Updated June 20, 2024

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