A 31-year-old Virginia woman told investigators she wanted to run a “legit” business charging people a fee to file fraudulent unemployment claims on their behalf, according to federal court filings.

She got prison instead.

Leelynn Danielle Chytka was sentenced to nine years in prison on Friday after prosecutors said she defrauded the government out of nearly half a million dollars in pandemic unemployment benefits by filing false applications for prisoners, friends and family members.

Chytka lives in Lebanon, Virginia, about 20 miles from the North Carolina border.

Though the money was sometimes deposited into inmates’ commissary accounts, the government said Chytka often kept it for herself. She’s also accused of keeping a portion of the benefits as payment from friends and family.

“In the midst of a global pandemic, this defendant conspired with others to defraud the Virginia Employment Commission of nearly $500,000 intended for Virginians in need,” Acting U.S. Attorney Daniel P. Bubar said. “This was money set aside by the federal government to assist those struggling during the COVID-19 crisis — not meant to line the pockets of fraudsters.”

Unemployment insurance is designed to provide financial assistance to people who lose their jobs through no fault of their own. During the pandemic, the federal government expanded eligibility for those benefits to offset job losses in the wake of nationwide shutdowns.

Chytka pleaded guilty in March to conspiring to defraud the government, conspiring to commit mail fraud in connection with a major disaster, identity theft and distributing suboxone, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Western District of Virginia said in a news release.

A public defender appointed to represent Chytka did not immediately respond to McClatchy News’ request for comment on Friday.

In federal court documents filed alongside her plea agreement, prosecutors said Chytka orchestrated the scheme with two other individuals — brothers Greg and Jeff Tackett, one of whom was in prison at the time of the alleged fraud.

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Jeff Tackett was incarcerated at the Southwest Virginia Regional Jail Authority in Duffield. Greg Tackett later told investigators he wasn’t in prison when he filed for the unemployment benefits but was out on bond for drug possession and “on the run,” court filings state.

Chytka filed the first claim for unemployment insurance using the Lebanon, Virginia, address she shared with Greg Tackett in May 2020, prosecutors said. At the time, she was employed and not eligible to receive the benefits.

Chytka then filed claims on behalf of Greg and Jeff Tackett using the same address, prosecutors said.

In the months that followed, Chytka is accused of filing another 36 claims at the same address. At least 15 of those were for people incarcerated with Jeff Tackett, according to court documents. Those individuals gave Jeff Tackett their Social Security numbers and dates of birth, which he then communicated to Chytka and Greg Tackett.

Prosecutors said many of the applications had the same answers to security questions or listed the same telephone number belonging to Chytka.

Investigators eventually interviewed Chytka at a jail in North Carolina, court filings state. She reportedly told them she received the unemployment benefits for inmates on prepaid debit cards and “occasionally” deposited it into their commissary accounts when asked to do so by Jeff Tackett.

If they didn’t ask, prosecutors said, Chykta and Greg Tackett would use the cards “to their own benefit.”

Chykta also received the prepaid debit cards on behalf of friends and family members who asked for help filing fraudulent unemployment applications, the government said.

“Chytka and (Greg Tackett) usually kept these cards and paid these individuals in cash, illicit drugs, or other items of value (including providing some individuals with vehicles),” prosecutors said.

On at least two occasions, prosecutors said Chykta stole the personal information of an inmate as well as the Tackett brothers’ grandfather to complete applications without their knowledge.

The government said investigators were able to trace the scheme through emails and jail-recorded phone calls.

Chytka reportedly told investigators she planned to start a business called “D&R Accounting” with Greg Tackett.

“Chytka explained to investigators she wanted to make her business ‘legit’ – that instead of stealing other people’s unemployment money, she wanted to eventually charge people a fee for her service of filing fraudulent claims,” the government said in court documents.

In total, prosecutors said Chytka received $499,000 in fraudulent unemployment claims on behalf of at least 37 people over nine months.

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