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United States of America v. Angelica Vasquez

March 12, 2012

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, PLAINTIFF-APPELLEE,
v.
ANGELICA VASQUEZ, DEFENDANT-APPELLANT.



Appeal from the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, Eastern Division. No. 08 CR 866-Ronald A. Guzman, Judge.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Kanne, Circuit Judge.

ARGUED OCTOBER 31, 2011

Before KANNE and WILLIAMS, Circuit Judges, and DEGUILIO, District Judge.*fn1

For approximately seven years, Angelica Vasquez aided undocumented immigrants in filing claims for Illinois unemployment benefits. Vasquez charged an $80 fee to prepare and submit applications on behalf of these aliens to the Illinois Department of Employment Security ("IDES"). The social security numbers of unsuspecting, law-abiding citizens were unlawfully used to apply for benefits. Vasquez arranged with an IDES employee to process the applications she submitted as though the undocumented aliens were United States citizens. For her services, Vasquez also received a subsequent payment of one benefits check from each of the claimants.

A jury convicted Vasquez of eight counts of mail fraud on June 17, 2010, and she was sentenced to 96 months' imprisonment. At the sentencing hearing, defense counsel did not object to the presentence investigation report (PSR), which applied four sentencing guideline enhancements to Vasquez's sentence. Vasquez now argues on appeal that three of these enhancements were applied in error. Because we find that the district court did not commit plain error in applying the enhancements set forth in the PSR, we affirm.

I. BACKGROUND

IDES administers Illinois's unemployment insurance program, which provides income for individuals who are unemployed through no fault of their own. Eligible individuals must have earned a certain amount of wages in their prior job and be actively seeking employment. Although claimants need not be Illinois residents, they must be United States citizens or authorized to work in the United States.

To apply for benefits, an unemployed individual completes an application at a local office or online. The application asks for information including the claimant's name, address, date of birth, last date of employment, employer, spouse's social security number, and existence of dependent children. In addition, a claimant must answer a series of eligibility questions. After completing the form, a claimant must provide his signature, certifying that the information is true and accurate. The claimant must also produce two forms of identification, one of which must include his social security number. The claimant's social security number is necessary because employers report this number to IDES.

One question on the unemployment insurance application asks if the applicant is a United States citizen. If a claimant answers in the affirmative, IDES does not ask for proof of citizenship, instead relying on the claimant's certification that the information is true and accurate. If the claimant responds that he is not a citizen but has authorization to work in the United States, IDES requests his alien registration number and verifies that the number is valid within the Department of Homeland Security's database. If the citizenship question is left blank, the application is rejected.

Once a claim has been approved, IDES mails a finding to the claimant detailing his benefits and instructing him to call the IDES phone system, Tele-Serve. IDES also mails a confirmation number that is required to certify eligibility. In order for the claimant to receive his next check, he must call Tele-Serve on a biweekly basis, verify his identification, and certify his continuing eligibility for unemployment benefits. The first time a claimant calls Tele-Serve he is required to create a personal identification number (PIN), which is used as an electronic signature every time he calls thereafter. A claimant enters his social security number and PIN to access the certification menu within Tele-Serve. He then provides his confirmation number or answers a series of questions to certify continuing eligibility. Proper certification allows a claimant to collect his next biweekly payment.

Beginning in 2001, Angelica Vasquez assisted illegal immigrants in obtaining unemployment benefits. These immigrants provided their information to Vasquez either directly, by telephone, or through an intermediary. Among the information provided, the immigrants gave Vasquez social security numbers they had unlawfully obtained so they could work within the United States. As her clients were undocumented workers, Vasquez was aware that these social security numbers were "bad." Vasquez charged $80 for completion of each application. Her boyfriend, Demetrio Barajas, would often meet with the illegal immigrants and accept information and payments on Vasquez's behalf. Vasquez did not inquire if the claimants were United States citizens, had valid social security numbers, or were legally permitted to work in the United States. Nor did Vasquez request documentation or a signature from the claimants. Often the claimants never signed or even saw their applications.

Vasquez had an arrangement with an IDES employee, James Snell, to process these falsified applications. Vasquez would drop off the completed applications with Snell, who would then input the data and approve the payment of benefits. If the citizenship question on the applications was left blank, Snell would input the answer "yes" into the computer. He would process these applications without the claimant present and without any proof of identification. On occasion, Vasquez would treat Snell to lunch or buy him a bottle of gin as payment for his services.

After benefits were approved, the illegal immigrants would receive a letter in the mail containing a confirmation number. They would provide this number to Vasquez or Barajas. Vasquez would call Tele-Serve, set up a PIN for each claimant, and use the confirmation number provided by the claimant to certify ongoing eligibility for unemployment benefits. The claimants continued to provide confirmation numbers to Vasquez each time they received a new check. As payment for her services, Vasquez received the entirety of the second benefits check from each claimant. Again, Barajas often received these payments on behalf of Vasquez. If a claimant failed to pay, Vasquez would reroute the checks to a different address.

In December 2007, IDES promoted Snell, who informed Vasquez that he would no longer be able to process unemployment insurance applications. Shortly thereafter, Vasquez ceased helping illegal immigrants collect unemployment benefits and began working full-time as a dispatcher at Roto-Rooter. In October 2008, following an extensive investigation at Snell's IDES branch, Vasquez was interviewed by federal authorities and arrested for her role in a scheme to defraud IDES. On April 8, 2010, a grand jury returned a superseding indictment charging Vasquez with nine counts of mail fraud and one count of forfeiture. The superseding indictment alleged that Vasquez devised and participated in a scheme to defraud IDES and to obtain money through materially false and fraudulent representations, resulting in an IDES loss of over $700,000 in unemployment benefit ...


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