Attorneys

Monterey County Jail inmates and a former attorney are charged in widespread fraud case.

A troubled attorney who resigned from practicing law while facing multiple disciplinary proceedings. A suspect in a notorious 2016 Salinas murder, and the murder suspect’s sister. A pair of convicted burglars awaiting trial for drug and weapons possession, a suspected car thief also accused of drug possession and yet another suspected car thief accused of possessing burglary tools and evading police.

These are the first defendants charged by Monterey County prosecutors in what’s been described as a massive, statewide fraud on California’s Employment Development Department – a scheme that was orchestrated by jail and prison inmates with assistance from people on the outside.

The Monterey County District Attorney’s Office on Feb. 2 filed one count of conspiracy, nine counts of making false statements and two counts of money laundering against the defendants. They include Reynaldo Garcia Gomez, a UCLA Law School graduate who started practicing law in Hollister in 1990 and resigned from practice in 1998 after facing multiple disciplinary trials and convictions by the State Bar. Also charged are Lenny Sanks, who faces trial, along with his brother, Jerry Lee Sanks, in the 2016 Chinatown revenge killing of Kareem Jamal King. The Sanks’ sister, Nicole, was also charged in the EDD scheme. Lenny Sanks and the remaining defendants – Tony Tran, Lanh Truong, Juan Castillo Lopez and Zachary Dobbs – were all in custody at the Monterey County Jail, while warrants have been issued for Nicole Sanks and Gomez.

What tripped them up was simple technology, prosecutors and police say. Calls to and from jail inmates are subject to recording, and some of the defendants were recorded talking about the scheme.

“They were sharing information around the jail. It was ‘Hurry up, hurry up, it’s free money, man, you gotta get in on this,’” says Deputy District Attorney Steve Somers. “If someone in custody got Covid relief funds, we had to determine if they were involved in it, or if someone was using their information.”

According to the California Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections, numbers released in November showed prisoners – or someone using their names – filed 35,003 unemployment claims, resulting in payouts of $140 million. Locally, a team that includes Somers, a DA investigator and a forensic accountant are examining 66 other Monterey County jail inmates whose names were used to obtain benefits.

Monterey County Sheriff’s Office Investigation’s Cmdr. Kathy Palazzolo says the phone call that triggered the investigation involved an unrelated case and a separate law enforcement agency listening in. When they heard the conversation, in which a jail inmate was recorded talking to someone on the outside about receiving unemployment benefits, they reached out to the Sheriff’s Office.

After the first round of cases was filed Feb. 2, Palazzolo hopes people will understand the seriousness of the issue.

“This money was meant for people who lost their jobs. It was not meant for people in custody,” she says. “It’s really sad to me,” she says. “It’s something we are all going to pay for.”

The defendants who are already in custody will be arraigned on Feb. 5.

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