PROVIDENCE — Under mounting pressure, the state Department of Labor and Training plans to release information next week about the extent of unemployment insurance fraud in Rhode Island.
On Monday, a union official filed a complaint with the attorney general’s office, challenging DLT’s refusal to say how many state residents and state employees have been victims of unemployment insurance fraud.
“I requested two data points. I requested two numbers,” said Matthew Gunnip, president of SEIU Local 580/Rhode Island Alliance of Social Service Employees. “I didn’t request any confidential information or identifying information whatsoever.”
On Thursday, Matthew Weldon – who became the DLT’s acting director after Scott R. Jensen stepped down on Monday – defended the department’s decision to not disclose that data earlier.
“Preventing unemployment insurance fraud is hard enough without tipping your hand,” Weldon said. “We think letting fraudsters know how many attempts they made and how many were successful could give them an advantage in filing fraudulent claims.”
But he said the DLT has been dealing with unemployment insurance fraud for a year now and has had success in curbing phony claims and payments. While the DLT does not have data on the number of state employees who have been victims of unemployment insurance fraud, Weldon said, “We will be releasing detailed information about the scope of the unemployment fraud scheme that we have been experiencing for the last year.”
DLT spokeswoman Margaux Fontaine said the decision to release the data was not in response to the public records complaint filed with the attorney general. She said Gunnip would have to ask the state Department of Administration for data on the number of state employees victimized by bogus claims.
Gunnip said he will continue pressing for the number of state employees who have been victims of unemployment insurance fraud. “It’s going to continue to cause skepticism and concern among state employees that there was a data breach and that they could have fraudulent claims filed in their names,” he said.
Gunnip first asked for that data on Jan. 21.
But DLT’s legal counsel rejected the request on Jan. 25, citing an exemption for “investigatory records of public bodies” under the Access to Public Records Act and saying, “The investigation concerning all DLT fraud claims is ongoing and is not finalized.”
Gunnip appealed that decision to Jensen, who has since stepped down after six years on the job. But Jensen rejected Gunnip’s appeal.
“The process of determining which claims are indeed due to fraud is a multifaceted process,” Jensen wrote. “It is believed that the privacy interests at stake in this request outweighs the public interest of disclosure.”
That prompted Gunnip to file a complaint with Attorney General Peter F. Neronha’s office on Monday. Spokeswoman Kristy dosReis said the attorney general’s office has asked DLT to respond to Gunnip’s complaint. Once the office has reviewed the information provided by both sides, it will issue a decision about what, if any, information the agency must provide under the Access to Public Records Act, she said.
Gunnip, who had a false unemployment claim filed in his name, said it’s ironic that DLT is citing privacy protection in refusing to reveal the extent of a privacy breach. He also noted that on Feb. 8 Jensen provided a detailed briefing to the state Senate Committee on Rules, Government Ethics, and Oversight, in which Jensen said the state has confirmed $23 million lost to unemployment insurance fraud since the pandemic began.
“We want to see the numbers because more and more members of the union are coming forward saying they are victims of unemployment fraud,” he said. “The concern is there is possibly a data breach among state employees, and the fact that they are withholding information makes us suspicious.”
On Feb. 5, the State Police told the Globe that Rhode Island was receiving 800 to 1,000 complaints per day about unemployment insurance fraud now that the federal government has extended a COVID-19 relief package and boosted weekly unemployment checks by $300.
Justin Silverman, executive director of the New England First Amendment Coalition, said, “It is inconceivable that this information would implicate anyone’s privacy interests. But even if it did, the public interest in knowing how many Rhode Islanders are being defrauded clearly outweighs whatever minimal privacy interests there may be.”
“If this were any of other crime being investigated, we would be receiving this information,” he added. “We are looking for data, not personal information – just two numbers. There is no reason why an ongoing investigation should prevent this data from being disclosed.”