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GOP lawmakers not mollified on COVID-19 scams against Kansas

Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly answers questions from reporters during a news conference in which she announces that the state will shut down its system for processing unemployment claims to combat fraud, Wednesday, Feb. 3, 2021, at the Statehouse in Topeka, Kan. The 2 1/2-day shutdowns will delay payments to some jobless workers while the state installs anti-fraud processes. (AP Photo/John Hanna)

Assurances from labor officials that new security protocols are blocking thousands of fraudulent attempts every hour to access Kansas’ unemployment benefits system did little Wednesday to dispel the concerns of Republican lawmakers who fear the state is losing millions of dollars to COVID-19 pandemic scammers.

The state Department of Labor reported that it had blocked more than 538,000 attempts from internet bots or human spammers to log into its unemployment system during the 27 hours after a shutdown of the system ended Tuesday morning. The department shut down the system Saturday afternoon to add new security protocols after a flood of fraudulent claims for benefits.

Republicans in the GOP-controlled Legislature have criticized Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly and her administration for months over problems at the Department of Labor in providing benefits to workers who’ve lost their jobs in the pandemic. She and department officials have blamed the struggles on a decades-old computer system.

GOP lawmakers have become increasingly focused on fraudulent claims and have said they’re worried that employers, who cover at least part of the benefits for their ex-workers, will be on the hook for bogus claims if the fraud is not detected. The department also is mailing forms to individuals telling them they owe income taxes on past unemployment benefits — creating a headache for people who learn that bogus claims have been filed in their names.

The department said before the unemployment system’s reboot that it was catching about 2,300 fraudulent claims a day — or roughly 96 an hour. But its latest data means it stopped more than 19,500 fraudulent log-in attempts an hour since the reboot — or roughly five every second.

“How many actually got through is my concern,” said House commerce committee Chair Sean Tarwater, a Stilwell Republican.

GOP lawmakers have been at odds with Kelly almost since COVID-19 reached the state in early March 2020 over her closing non-essential businesses and trying to mandate mask-wearing, and Republicans have signaled that it will make what they view as her mistakes a key issue when she seeks a second term in 2022. But in recent weeks, as the number of new COVID-19 cases has declined, GOP criticism has focused on the Department of Labor and issues with the rollout of vaccines.

Kansas averaged 914 new confirmed and probable COVID-19 cases a day for the seven days ending Wednesday, the first time the rolling seven-day average was below 1,000 since Oct. 28, according to state health department data. The state added 2,247 cases to its pandemic tally since Monday, bringing it to 278,915, close to one for every 10 of its 2.9 million residents.

The health department added 86 deaths to the state’s pandemic total since Monday, making it 3,895. Kansas averaged 25 additional COVID-19 deaths a day for the seven days ending Wednesday.

Kelly issued a statewide stay-at-home order in late March to contain the spread of COVID-19, and unemployment claims surged. They dropped before surging again starting in late November, fueling concerns that many of the claims were bogus.

Julie Menghini, the Department of Labor’s director of government affairs, told legislators in an email Tuesday evening that it has this year mailed out its largest number of forms notifying people they owed income taxes on unemployment benefits. She said the department made “every effort” to ensure that the forms didn’t go to people who had bogus claims filed in their names.

“However, despite our best efforts and in light of the historic level of forms issued as well as the high level of fraudulent activity, we expect a small universe of victims to receive these forms in error for compensation they never received,” Menghini wrote.

But GOP lawmakers said they’re getting complaints from people getting the forms who also can’t get through to the department’s special fraud call center.

University of Kansas journalism professor Teri Finneman received a notice saying that she owed taxes on $1,500 in unemployment benefits that she never received. She’s tried repeatedly to get through to the Department of Labor by phone and in frustration wrote a letter last week.

Finneman, who has covered state government in other states as a former political reporter, said she has never seen anything like it from a state agency. She said the fact that Kansas let an agency operate with a decades-old computer system is “completely inexcusable.”

“It is extremely frustrating how many Kansans have been impacted by this,” she said in an email to The AP.

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