Former USC football player charged in COVID-19 unemployment benefits fraud scheme

USC Trojans linebacker Abdul-Malik McClain (42) on the field before a game against the Arizona State Sun Devils played on October 27, 2018 at the Los Angels Memorial Coliseum in Los Angels, CA. (Photo by John Cordes/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

A former University of Southern California football player was arrested Monday on federal charges alleging he orchestrated a scheme that fraudulently sought hundreds of thousands of dollars in COVID-related unemployment benefits.

Abdul-Malik McClain, 22, who currently attends and plays at Jackson State in Mississippi, surrendered to federal law enforcement officials in Los Angeles. He was charged with 10 counts of mail fraud and two counts of aggravated identity theft.

McClain, who was living in Los Angeles and a member of the USC Trojans football team in 2020 during the alleged scheme, pleaded not guilty to the charges against him and was ordered released on a $20,000 bond.

According to the Justice Department, while he was a Trojan, McClain organized and assisted a group of other football players in filing fraudulent claims for unemployment benefits. 

The indictment alleges that the claims – which were filed with the California Employment Development Department (EDD) – contained false information about the football players’ supposed prior employment, pandemic-related job loss, and job-seeking efforts in California.

RELATED: California’s unemployment fraud reaches at least $20 billion

The false applications led the EDD to authorize Bank of America to mail debit cards to the football players. Those debit cards were loaded with at least hundreds of dollars, and sometimes thousands of dollars, in unemployment benefits, which the recipients used to make cash withdrawals at ATMs and to fund personal expenses. In some cases, McClain sought and obtained a cut for helping others file their fraudulent applications.

The group allegedly claimed that they were athletic trainers and tutors whose employment had been negatively impacted by the pandemic. 

In total, 36 applications were filed and nearly $230,000 in benefits were paid out. The applications sought more than $903,000 in funds, according to the Justice Department.

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"When the university learned of this matter in September 2020, we notified law enforcement and have been fully cooperating with authorities," the university said in a statement to Fox News. "We are unable to provide additional information because this is pending criminal matter."

Each mail fraud count carries a statutory maximum sentence of 20 years in federal prison. The aggravated identity theft counts carry a two-year mandatory prison sentence consecutive to any sentence imposed on the mail fraud counts.

The state of California gave away more than $20 billion to criminals in the form of fraudulent unemployment benefits, state officials said in October.

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