Ex-USC football player from OC accused of COVID-19 unemployment benefits scheme

A former USC football player from Orange County was arrested Monday, Dec. 20, after being accused of running a scheme in which he and other football players filed for hundreds of thousands of dollars in COVID-19-related unemployment benefits.

Abdul-Malik McClain, 22, who now attends Jackson State in Jackson, Mississippi, pleaded not guilty in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles to 10 counts of mail fraud and two counts of aggravated identity theft. He was released after posting $20,000 bond. He is due back in court on Feb. 15.

“We intend to vigorously defend Mr. McClain,” his attorney, Alex Kessel, said in a phone interview Monday afternoon.

No other arrests were announced Monday. Thom Mrozek, a spokesman for the U.S. Department of Justice, said the investigation is continuing.

It wasn’t immediately revealed by authorities how many other players were believed to be involved in the scheme.

McClain, a linebacker, was Trinity League defensive player of the year in 2017 while playing for JSerra Catholic High School in San Juan Capistrano.

A federal grand jury indicted McClain on Dec. 16. At least three dozen fraudulent applications seeking more than $900,000 were filed by McClain or his associates, a DOJ news release said. About $227,000 was paid out.

McClain was living in Los Angeles while the crimes were being committed during the summer of 2020, the release said. McClain announced in November 2020 that he was transferring to Jackson State.

“While a member of his university’s football team, McClain organized and assisted a group of other football players in filing fraudulent claims for unemployment benefits, including under the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) program established by Congress in response to the pandemic’s economic fallout,” the indictment says. “The indictment … contained false information about the football players’ supposed prior employment, pandemic-related job loss, and job-seeking efforts in California.”

Bank of America mailed debit cards loaded with hundreds or thousands of dollars in unemployment benefits to the football players, who used the cards to withdraw cash from ATMs, the indictment says.

“In some cases, McClain sought and obtained a cut for helping others,” the indictment says.

McClain and others filed applications in their own names, the names of friends and the names of identity theft victims, the indictment says.

The indictment identified the university whose players supposedly were involved only as “University 1.”

A USC spokeswoman did not answer questions about whether any current players were under investigation and whether their standing with the team or university has been affected.

“When the university learned of this matter in September 2020, we notified law enforcement and have been fully cooperating with authorities. We are unable to provide additional information because this is a pending criminal matter,” USC spokeswoman Laura Bartlett said in a written statement.

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