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No Leniency for Illinois Unemployment Fraud

CHICAGO (CN) - The 7th Circuit refused to reduce the eight-year sentence facing a woman who helped undocumented immigrants file claims for Illinois unemployment benefits.

For seven years, beginning in 2001, Angelica Vasquez ran a business filing fraudulent claims with the Illinois Department of Employment Security for undocumented immigrants. Vasquez charged $80 to prepare each claim and then more for subsequent benefits checks.

Using the immigrant's name and the Social Security numbers of unsuspecting citizens, Vasquez would submit claims to James Snell, a co-conspirator in the unemployment department who approved the applications and supplement any missing information. In exchange for his cooperation, Vasquez would take Snell out to lunch occasionally and buy him bottles of gin.

After the application was approved, the recipient would provide Vasquez or her boyfriend, Demetrio Barajas, with a confirmation number used to access the unemployment department's phone system. Vasquez would generate a pin number for the recipient, used to confirm eligibility via phone on a biweekly basis. The recipients would provide Vasquez the confirmation numbers that they received with each check, which she used when calling on their behalf.

The scheme ended in 2007 when Snell was promoted within the department. After a 2008 investigation of Snell's branch uncovered the improprieties, Vasquez was arrested. She had submitted approximately 72 fraudulent applications, costing the state more than $700,000.

Vasquez was convicted of eight counts of mail fraud and received a below-guidelines sentence of eight years imprisonment. The court applied a sentencing guideline that included a four-level adjustment for acting as a leader in the criminal activity, identity theft and involvement in a criminal offense with greater than 50 victims.

At trial, Vasquez's attorney did not object to the sentencing enhancements. When Vasquez raised them on appeal, the government said they should be rejected as waived. It said because the decision not to challenge the sentence was a trial strategy intended to discuss only mitigating, rather than aggravating, factors during sentencing.

On March 12, the 7th Circuit said it did not matter whether the arguments were intentionally waived or simply forfeited because they fail under plain-error review.

Vasquez was the leader of the operation, the court found, because the undocumented immigrants for whom she fraudulently acquired benefits counted as subordinates under her control.

"Vasquez did not merely refer customers to Snell at the IDES office," Judge Michael Kanne wrote for a three-member panel. "Instead, Vasquez exercised near total control over the entire scheme. ... She recruited others to help in her efforts, including her boyfriend Barajas. ... Thus, she shared a common interest with her clients in seeking unemployment benefits."

The additional enhancements also apply because use of unsuspecting citizens' Social Security numbers constitutes identity theft and placed the number of "victims" of the crime above 50, Kanne added.

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