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‘Woo Gang’ members, associates charged with unemployment insurance fraud

February 17, 2022 Brooklyn Eagle Staff
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A criminal complaint was unsealed Thursday in Brooklyn Federal Court charging Romean Brown, Tyrek Clarke, Kennith Desir, Stephan Dorminvil, Kai Heyward, Keith James, Oneal Marks, Jahriah Olivierre, Christopher Jean Pierre, Roleeke Smith and Christopher Topey with conspiracy to commit access device fraud and aggravated identity theft in connection with a scheme to obtain millions of dollars in unemployment insurance benefits funded by COVID-19 pandemic assistance programs. 

Eight defendants were arrested in New York City and made their initial appearance before United States Magistrate Judge Sanket J. Bulsara. Heyward was arrested in Delaware and made his initial appearance in federal court in Wilmington. Brown was arrested in California made his initial appearance this afternoon in federal court in Los Angeles. Olivierre remains at large. 

The defendants are all members or associates of the Brooklyn-based Woo gang, according to federal prosecutors. Between March 2020 and October 2021, they used the information of more than 800 victims to submit nearly 1,000 claims to the New York State Department of Labor for unemployment insurance benefits funded, in whole or in part, by COVID-19 pandemic assistance programs. 

The defendants ultimately obtained approximately $4.3 million in unemployment insurance after having filed for approximately $20 million in benefits, according to complaint papers. During the period of the charged conspiracy, the defendants posted photos of themselves on social media flashing gang signs, standing in front of luxury vehicles, and holding stacks of United States currency. 

Breon, U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of New York. Photo courtesy of U.S Attorney’s Office

Several of the defendants appeared in a music video entitled “Trappin,” which was posted to YouTube on May 8, 2021. The lyrics of the song include, “Unemployment got us workin’ a lot,” a reference to the defendants’ fraudulent scheme. 

In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Congress established programs and provided additional funding for unemployment insurance benefits for unemployed persons. These programs included the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES Act), which was signed into law on March 27, 2020, and created programs for pandemic unemployment assistance and federal pandemic unemployment compensation. 

Breon Peace, United States Attorney for the Eastern District of New York, Jonathan Mellone, Special Agent-in-Charge, U.S. Department of Labor, Office of Inspector General, New York Regional Office (DOL-OIG), and Keechant L. Sewell, Commissioner, New York City Police Department (NYPD), announced the arrests and charges. 

U.S Magistrate Judge Sanket J. Bulsara, EDNY.
Eagle file photo by Rob Abruzzese

“As alleged, the defendants conspired to steal millions of dollars in pandemic-related unemployment assistance and then brazenly flaunted the proceeds of their crimes on social media,” stated U.S. Attorney Peace. “These government programs are designed to provide financial assistance to those who are most in need during an unprecedented pandemic. This office and its law enforcement partners will vigorously prosecute gang members and anyone else who exploits the pandemic and steals from taxpayer-funded programs.’  

Peace also thanked the New York State Department of Labor for its assistance during the investigation. 

“The Unemployment Insurance Program exists to provide needed assistance to qualified individuals who are unemployed due to no fault of their own. Fraud against the Unemployment Insurance Program distracts state workforce agencies, like the New York State Department of Labor, from ensuring benefits go to individuals who are eligible to receive them,” said DOL-OIG Special Agent-in-Charge Mellone. 

The government’s case is being prosecuted by the Office’s Organized Crime and Gangs Section and Public Integrity Section. Assistant United States Attorneys Michael W. Gibaldi and Robert Polemeni are in charge of the prosecution.

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