Federal courthouse
Federal courthouse in downtown San Diego. Photo by Chris Stone

A Vista man who pleaded guilty to taking more than $300,000 in unemployment benefits intended for those who’d lost work during the COVID-19 pandemic was sentenced Monday to nearly five years in federal prison.

Darris Cotton, 30, submitted at least 16 false applications for benefits by using other people’s names, dates of birth and social security numbers, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office.

Those applications led the California Employment Development Department to mail debit cards to Cotton, which he used to buy money orders to obtain the funds, prosecutors say. The U.S. Attorney’s Office says Cotton also submitted fraudulent applications in Pennsylvania, Maryland and Arizona and used the stolen funds he received to buy “luxury items such as Gucci backpacks.”

As part of the plea agreement, Cotton agreed to forfeit more than $112,000 in money orders and currency seized from him.

“This defendant exploited an unemployment insurance program that was intended to be a safety net for workers who suffered financial hardship during a global pandemic,” U.S. Attorney Randy Grossman said. “Crimes like this took money away from those who truly needed it.”

A sentencing memorandum submitted by Cotton’s defense attorney stated that he was “deeply remorseful” for the crime and was not aware at the time that the conduct would hurt ordinary citizens.

“He believed he was taking money from the government, but that no individual people would be harmed,” the memo reads. “It was not until after his arrest that he understood that commit(ting) this offense could prevent people from getting the benefits they needed and were entitled to, among other harms.”

City News Service contributed to this article.