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Bill ratcheting up penalties for jobless benefits fraud heads to Senate

The Wisconsin Assembly has given its blessing to a bill that would increase the criminal penalties for unemployment claimants who fraudulently obtain jobless benefits.

State law already has penalties for people who conceal material facts related either to their ability to obtain jobless benefits or to the wages they had earned while working. Those who are found to have committed a violation known as concealment can be forced to pay back the money they received from the state plus a penalty equal to 40 percent of that amount.

Aside from those civil penalties, a person can also face criminal charges for making a false statement or representation in order to obtain jobless benefits and be hit with penalties ranging from $100 to $500 in fines and as many as 90 days in prison.

Assembly Bill 710, and its companion in the state Senate, Senate Bill 542, would raise those criminal penalties, making them go up in accordance with the amount of benefits a claimant illegally obtained. If the benefits fraudulently obtained totaled $2,500 or less, a claimant would face a maximum of $10,000 in fines and nine months in prison.

For those who obtained between $2,500 and $10,000 worth of benefits, the offense would become a felony and the criminal penalties would be three and a half years in prison and a maximum of $10,000 in fines.

For claimants who had fraudulently obtained more than $10,000 worth of jobless benefits, the crime would also be a felony but the maximum penalties would be $25,000 in fines and 10 years in prison.

The bills would allow a series of violations to be prosecuted as a single crime.

Assembly lawmakers on Thursday passed AB 710 on a 62-32 vote.  Democrats unsuccessfully attempted to make amendments to the bill, including one that would have required prosecutors to prove that claimants intended to receive benefits they knew they were not entitled to.

The vote comes on the heels of a panel of Assembly lawmakers voting on Tuesday to recommend the bill for adoption. A Senate panel gave the go-ahead on Jan. 30.

The bill now heads to the full Senate. Should it be approved there, its next stop would be Gov. Scott Walker’s desk.

Last session, a similar bill, AB 533, was passed out of the full Assembly but never made it to a vote before the full Senate.

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