Rapper Who "Got Rich" Off COVID Relief Programs Sentenced to 6 Years in Prison and Must Pay Over $700,000
Video led to arrest.
A rapper who bragged about scamming a COVID relief program out of hundreds of thousands of dollars has been sentenced to six years in prison and ordered to pay the federal government more than $700,000 in restitution, the Washington Post reported last week.
Fontrell Antonio Baines, 33, also known as Nuke Bizzle, boasted in a YouTube video about getting money from a program intended for people who became unemployed because of the pandemic. He pleaded guilty to mail fraud, along with unlawful possession of a firearm and possession of oxycodone.
The judge found Baines filed 92 fraudulent Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) claims to the state of California between July and September 2020. In all, he attempted to illegally obtain about $1.2 million of federal money, although ultimately, he only managed to obtain $704,760. Read on to find out more about the failed heist.
To execute his scheme, Baines used other people's identities, including some obtained by identity theft, the Post reported. He filed applications for pandemic relief that fabricated applicants' work histories and residencies in the state.
Baines listed addresses in Beverly Hills and Los Angeles's Koreatown. This allowed him to get debit cards preloaded with unemployment benefits. He used the card to withdraw cash from ATMs, federal agents said. Keep reading to learn what happened next and to see the music video he recorded.
In the YouTube video, which federal agents say was posted on Sept. 11, 2020, Baines held up a stack of envelopes from California's Employment Development Department.
They included one addressed to an individual identified by federal agents in court filings as a victim of Baines's identity theft, the Post reported. In the video, Baines said he was getting rich by "go[ing] to the bank with a stack of these."
Soon after the video was posted to YouTube, it was forwarded by a special agent at the U.S. Department of Labor's Office of Inspector General to a branch chief in the office's data science team, who was tasked with tracking Baines down. The rapper was found through his social media profiles.
The video was edited in October 2020 to include the disclaimer "***THIS VIDEO WAS CREATED WITH PROPS AND WAS MADE FOR ENTERTAINMENT PURPOSES***." That didn't prevent the case from proceeding.
Baines told the court he took full responsibility for obtaining the fraudulent funds and apologized. He said the scheme was started by his friends, whom he allowed to use his address to receive mail.
"They said they will give me money for letting mail come to the house. They would send the envelopes, and all I had to do was give them the mail when it arrived. When I found out how much money they were getting I felt played, and I started just taking the cards myself and telling them they never made it," Baines wrote in a letter to the judge.
In September, a federal watchdog estimated that $45.6 billion had been stolen from the nation's unemployment insurance program during the pandemic. Scammers used the Social Security numbers of dead people and other tactics to defraud the government, the Post reported.
A top watchdog for the Labor Department has estimated that "at least" $163 billion in unemployment payments may have been fraudulently claimed. This includes wrongly paid funds and "significant" benefits obtained by malicious actors.