A Plymouth man will serve six months in jail after pleading guilty to charges he collected pandemic unemployment benefits he wasn’t entitled to receive.

Aaron Fernandes, 43, was already locked up on drug charges when he allegedly plotted with two women — over a recorded phone line — to collect Covid relief funds. Inmates are barred from receiving public benefits.

Fernandes will begin serving his new sentence after finishing his current one on the drug charges — 2-1/2 to 3-1/2 years in prison. He pleaded guilty in May 2022 to multiple drug offenses, including possession with intent to distribute cocaine and fentanyl.

So far, at least five Plymouth have been charged with pandemic relief fraud either by state or federal authorities.

On Wednesday, Fernandes pleaded guilty in Suffolk Superior Court. His lawyer, Daniel Fitzgerald, declined comment because Fernandes’s co-defendants’ cases are ongoing.

Fernandes was accused of hatching the scheme with two women in December 2020, while he was being held at the Plymouth County Correctional Facility.

They allegedly collected almost $100,000 in unemployment benefits — payments meant for people struggling to survive during the coronavirus pandemic.

Besides filing a claim for himself, he also filed claims in another person’s name without that person’s knowledge and filed a claim for another person — with his permission— but kept the money for himself, prosecutors alleged.

Of the more than $96,000 allegedly stolen by the trio, Fernandes was responsible for $44,823, according to a court memorandum filed April 17 by assistant attorney general, Mary H. Nguyen.

His two co-defendants, Katherine Quigley and Rebecca Holmes, are still facing charges.

The plot was uncovered by investigators from the office of state Inspector General Jeffrey Shapiro, who was alerted to the possible fraud by Plymouth County Sheriff Joseph McDonald, Jr., according to court papers.

In monitoring inmates’ phone calls, the sheriff’s department became aware that prisoners were possibly committing pandemic unemployment fraud, wrote Nguyen.

The sheriff’s office filed a complaint with the inspector general in March 2021, court papers said.

“Our security team is diligent in staying ahead of these sorts of things,” McDonald told the Independent. “I credit their good work in uncovering these crimes.”

State investigators listened to about 30 calls recorded between October 25, 2020, and March 26, 2021. They confirmed that Fernandes, Holmes, and Quigley “openly discussed a scheme” to file for unemployment benefits they were not entitled to, prosecutors said.

Fernandes, Nguyen wrote, “committed repeated offenses” in a “pervasive pattern against the Department of Unemployment Assistance.”

She recommended a prison sentence of two to three years.

Fernandes pleaded guilty to three counts of larceny over $1,200, two counts of unemployment fraud, one count of identity fraud, and one count of conspiracy to commit larceny.  

After Fernandes serves his sentence, he will remain on probation for three years, ruled Suffolk Superior Court judge Michael Doolin, who also ordered him to pay $44,823 in restitution to the state Department of Unemployment Assistance.

The overwhelming need for these funds in the wake of a global pandemic and the speed with which they were dispersed did create opportunities for fraud,” said Shapiro.

I am grateful to the Attorney General and her team for their continued efforts to hold those who took advantage of that opportunity accountable.  The OIG remains committed to pursuing allegations of fraud.”

Earlier this month, a Plymouth business owner was charged with pocketing more than $155,000 in Covid relief funds he wasnt entitled to receive.

Joseph Kerrissey, 46, the owner of several construction companies in town, allegedly filed six fraudulent applications for payroll protection loans between 2020 and 2021, according to an affidavit filed in federal court.

Kerrissey was believed to be the fifth Plymouth resident accused of improperly collecting COVID relief payments.

Andrea Estes can be reached at andrea@plymouthindependent.org.

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