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Attorney General Herring shuts down deceptive organization that exploited servicemembers

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RICHMOND (August 14, 2019) – Attorney General Mark R. Herring announced today that he has led a coalition of four states to shut down a deceptive organization that exploited goodwill towards those in the military and misused funds that were supposed to benefit servicemembers serving overseas. The multistate settlement involves Hearts 2 Heroes Inc., a for-profit company doing business as Active Duty Support Services Inc., which made door-to-door sales of “care packages” ostensibly to be sent to service members overseas. Last summer, Attorney General Herring filed suit against Hearts 2 Heroes alleging that the company violated the Virginia Consumer Protection Act and Virginia’s Solicitation of Contributions law by misrepresenting the nature of the business and the care packages purchased, and by misusing donated funds. The lawsuit was announced as part of “Operation Donate with Honor”, a nationwide sweep to crackdown on fraudulent charities that exploit the name of America’s veteran community to solicit donations. As part of the settlement, the business has been shut down and the owners will be permanently banned from engaging in charitable solicitations or working for a charitable organization.

“Organizations who prey on the kindness of Virginians and deceptively solicit donations from folks who are hoping to help veterans or servicemembers are shameful and should be held accountable,” said Attorney General Herring. “I hope this settlement sends a strong message to other organizations that may have similar deceptive operations that they must follow through with their promises and be honest about where their money is going.”

The complaint, filed in Henrico County Circuit Court, alleges that Hearts 2 Heroes violated the Virginia Consumer Protection Act and Virginia’s Solicitation of Contributions law by:
• leading prospective donors to believe that Hearts 2 Heroes is a charity, when it is not, and that donations made are tax deductible, when they are not;
• delivering care packages, if delivered at all, to military bases in the United States, not overseas as represented;
• representing to consumers that staff were veterans or volunteers when in fact those staff were not veterans or volunteers; and
• employing staff who would “skim” cash donations for personal use.

The settlement reached by Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania and West Virginia includes injunctive relief in the form of a ban of the two owners from engaging in charitable solicitations or working for a charitable organization, as well as the dissolution of the business. The settlement also includes a $286,959.95 restitution judgment against the now-defunct company, which will be suspended but enforced if the other terms of the settlement are not complied with. Additionally the states will receive a total of $10,000.

The settlement is in the form of a Consent Judgment that has been filed with the Henrico County Circuit Court for approval. The Commonwealth is represented in this matter by Assistant Attorney General Stephen John Sovinsky.

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Workers urge Northam to sign minimum wage bill

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RICHMOND, Va. — Workers and advocates are urging Gov. Ralph Northam to sign a bill that would raise the minimum wage to $9.50 at the start of next year. The General Assembly will reconvene on April 22, and lawmakers will reevaluate recently passed legislation as the state’s economy takes a blow and unemployment climbs during the COVID-19 outbreak.

Northam and state leaders anticipate the state’s economy will suffer a major hit from the coronavirus outbreak. Northam didn’t respond directly to whether he is considering delaying the increase in the minimum wage when asked at a recent press conference.

“There are a number of pieces of legislation that we are looking at regarding our business environment, and I haven’t made any definite decisions, but we are talking to the patrons of those pieces of legislation,” Northam said. The governor said he will “make a decision in the best interest of Virginia and the best interest of our economy.”

Workers on the front lines of essential businesses continue to serve the public during the COVID-19 outbreak, including many workers who earn minimum wage–currently $7.25 in Virginia.
Employees at a Virginia Kroger grocery store and Amazon distribution center recently tested positive for the coronavirus. Many essential workers have asked for an increase in pay to reflect the increased need for their services and the elevated risks they take while working.

Anna Scholl, executive director of Progress Virginia, an advocacy organization, said that raising the minimum wage is necessary to allow these workers to raise their families with dignity.

“That’s especially true now when grocery store workers, delivery drivers, home health aides and so many more are going to work for low wages and putting themselves at risk of getting sick so that we can stay home and healthy,” Scholl said in a press release.

The group is asking Northam to sign House Bill 395 into law without amendments or delays that would water down the bill. HB 395 would raise the minimum wage to $9.50 in 2021, $11 in 2022 and $12 in 2023. The minimum wage could go up to $15 by 2026 if approved by the General Assembly.

Photo by VCU Capital News Service

Some essential workers also argue that they are not being provided adequate protective gear and supplies to keep them safe from the coronavirus, another reason they are pushing for a guaranteed wage increase.

Lisa Harris works at Kroger in Mechanicsville and is a member of the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union. She has been with Kroger for 13 years and said in a press conference organized by Progress Virginia that she would benefit directly from HB 395. She is urging Northam to sign the bill with no weakening amendments.

“I find it fascinating how fast grocery store workers like me have gone from being considered unskilled labor to being recognized as essential personnel,” Harris said.

She compared workers dealing directly with an increasingly infected public to being on the front lines like first responders and said: “it would be nice to be paid accordingly.”

Harris said Kroger is not observing the proper social distancing recommendation of 6 feet or providing workers with personal protective equipment. She said the staff is required to wipe down the self-checkout scanners and screens every half hour but argues that this is impossible with the influx of customers visiting the store. Harris said the staff is given Windex to clean equipment and not a proper disinfectant. The company has given full-time workers a $300 bonus and part-time workers a $150 pay boost, but that’s not enough money, Harris said.

“It means barely being able to support myself, it means making tough decisions about whether to pay a bill or skip a meal, it means calling on my family members to help me as I’m attempting to be a fully enfranchised 31-year old,” Harris said.

Allison McGee, corporate affairs manager for Kroger, said the grocery chain provided all hourly workers with a $2 pay increase for hours worked March 29 through April 18. McGee also stated that all Kroger stores in the Richmond area have been provided with Environmental Protection Agency-registered disinfectants to wipe down counters and cash registers. She said employees are required to wipe down surfaces frequently and extra hand sanitizer bottles have been provided at each checkout station.

“As far as PPE, we are encouraging our associates to wear protective masks and gloves, and we’re working hard to secure these resources for our associates,” McGee stated in an email. “Supply has started to arrive for our associates, and we anticipate all locations having personal protective equipment within the next several weeks.”

Kroger said on its website that they want healthcare workers to get a hold of protective gear before they can properly distribute it to their workers. For now, employees have limited access to such PPE and are encouraged to use their own.

Beginning April 7, Kroger will also start to limit the number of customers to 50% of the building code’s calculated capacity to allow for proper physical distancing in stores, the company announced this week.

Michael Cassidy, executive director of The Commonwealth Institute for Fiscal Analysis, said that the coronavirus is a reminder many essential workers are also minimum wage workers.

“These individuals are providing a vital service to us right now and they deserve more than $7.25 an hour,” Cassidy said.

Cassidy said if the minimum wage increase were to go into effect in January, it would help 46,000 healthcare workers, 100,00 retail workers and over 100,000 restaurant and service industry workers. He said this would allow people to buy more and contribute to businesses and the economy as a whole.

Photo by VCU Capital News Service

“That’s important because consumer spending is the foundation of our economy, it’s about 72% of Virginia’s gross domestic product,” Cassidy said.

Del. Danica Roem said in a tweet that she is extremely disappointed to see groups advocating for bills like HB 395 to be watered down or delayed.

“We’re $1.50/hr behind West Virginia right now,” Roem tweeted. “You don’t see an uprising of West Virginian business leaders demanding the government lower their minimum wage to match ours.”

Cassidy said history shows that increasing the minimum wage during a recession has been successful in bringing the economy back.

HB 395 is currently pending signature by Northam with a deadline of April 11.

By Ada Romano
Capital News Service

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Attorney General Herring seeks extension of utility disconnection suspensions through duration of State of Emergency

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~ Herring filed an emergency petition on March 13th to halt disconnections for non-payment and suspend late charges during the state of emergency ~

RICHMOND (April 7, 2020) – Attorney General Mark R. Herring has asked the State Corporation Commission (SCC) to extend its utility disconnection suspension through at least June 10th when Virginia’s state of emergency is currently scheduled to end. Last month, the SCC halted utility disconnections for non-payment and suspended late charges following Attorney General Herring’s emergency petition requesting a freeze on disconnections.

“As we continue to grapple with the health and financial crises brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, it is clear that this extension is needed to make sure that all Virginians have access to water, power, and gas during the entirety of the state of emergency,” said Attorney General Herring. “This extension is especially important for hourly wage earners and those who work in the service industry who have been particularly affected by social distancing efforts and stay at home orders. I hope the SCC will continue to give Virginians some peace of mind during this time while we continue to ask them to stay home to prevent further spread of this virus.”

As Attorney General Herring explains in the filing “the temporary suspension of service disconnections for the reason of non-payment is needed to minimize adverse impacts on the public health and safety during this period of health and financial crisis.” Additionally, he adds that “during the immediate time of this emergency, the public interest requires that basic needs such as power, heat, and water go uninterrupted for all customers.” The Attorney General has sought the suspension of late fees during this time, but it is important to note that customers will eventually have to pay for the utilities they use during this time. If customers are able to, they should continue to pay their utility bills to avoid higher balances in the future.

In addition to extending the utility disconnection suspensions, Attorney General Herring also asks the SCC to consider the following:

• Reconnect service for any customers who request reconnection who had it disconnected for non-payment before the Suspension Order

• Waive any requirements that would make it harder for utilities to reconnect service

• Suspend late fees

• Provide for any other relief the Commission deems appropriate and necessary

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Virginia uses genetic technology to combat COVID-19

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~ State public health laboratory is one of the first in the nation to do this work ~

RICHMOND—Governor Ralph Northam today (April 6, 2020) announced that the Department of General Services’ (DGS) Division of Consolidated Laboratory Services (DCLS) is one of the first public health labs in the nation to use genetic technology to help public health officials better understand and track the scope of the COVID-19 pandemic to strengthen prevention and response efforts.

DCLS is using next-generation sequencing to genetically decode some Virginia samples that contain the novel coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2, which causes COVID-19. Looking at this genetic fingerprint can help public health officials track how the virus is changing and provide insights into how it is being transmitted.

“Advances in genetic sequencing allow us to track and analyze COVID-19 better than previous outbreaks,” said Governor Northam. “This innovative technology, combined with the work of our public health laboratory and epidemiologists around the Commonwealth, will help us understand the virus, how it spreads, and how it may change. And that will give us more tools to fight it.”

DCLS is working alongside the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and international public health and university partners using specialized lab equipment and computer software to piece together the genetic makeup of the virus found in COVID-19 patients. DCLS is working collaboratively to create a library that stores the information of not only the positive samples it identifies, but also those tested at private facilities, healthcare systems, and universities in Virginia.

Hidden in the genetic makeup of the virus are clues to its origin. Soon after the virus appeared in China, scientists used sequencing to tease out its genetic information and made that information available to the international public health community. As the virus travels from one person to another, it makes copies of itself and sometimes makes small genetic changes called mutations. Scientists can read these mutations like a road map, tracing how cases are related.

Next-generation sequencing generates enormous amounts of data, which is analyzed by specialized bioinformaticians at DCLS. The lab shares the data with public health officials and uploads it to GISAID, an online repository where genomic data is openly available to epidemiologists and virologists around the globe. Nextstrain, an online resource for scientists to visually track the genomics of the virus, creates diagrams that favor family trees showing the evolutionary relationships between different samples collected throughout the world.

“This genetic fingerprint gives us tremendous insight into this novel virus, helping us understand where Virginia cases originated and how they are being transmitted in our communities,” said DCLS Director Dr. Denise Toney. “Providing this information in real-time is unbelievably valuable for public health officials as they determine how to reduce the impact of COVID-19 in our communities.”

In Virginia, the sequences uploaded so far show evidence of multiple introductions of the virus into Virginia communities, suggesting that the emergence of COVID-19 is due to multiple distinct events. This is suggested by looking at the similarity of the virus in Virginia to the virus sequences obtained from Asian and European patients. There is also a clear indication of person-to-person spread within suspected COVID-19 outbreaks.

“Epidemiologists at the Virginia Department of Health can use these data during investigations of outbreaks in nursing homes and other settings to determine whether all of the cases originated from the same source or multiple sources,” said Virginia State Epidemiologist Dr. Lilian Peake.

For more information, visit the DGS website at dgs.virginia.gov, including this Next-Generation Sequencing in Virginia document that explains more about how DCLS is using genetic technology to combat COVID-19 in Virginia.

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Governor Northam COVID-19 update briefing – April 6, 2020

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Governor Northam joins the Virginia Emergency Support Team to share the latest updates on the COVID-19 response. Here is the latest update:

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Virginia Coronavirus Fraud Task Force, IRS-CI warn of potential COVID-19 economic impact payment scams

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The Virginia Coronavirus Fraud Task Force and Internal Revenue Service-Criminal Investigations (IRS-CI) are warning taxpayers to be alert about possible scams relating to COVID-19 economic impact payments.

United States Attorneys Thomas T. Cullen and G. Zachary Terwilliger, and the Virginia State Police along with Kelly R. Jackson, Special Agent in Charge of the IRS-CI Washington DC Field Office, made the announcement today in an effort to prevent taxpayers in need from being victimized by criminals using the recently approved payments as an opportunity to commit a crime.

“During this time of crisis, scammers and thieves prey on those most vulnerable in our community in an attempt to personally benefit by stealing their money and personal identifying information,” Special Agent in Charge Jackson said today. “Please help us protect everyone in your community by telling family, friends and elderly neighbors to be on the lookout for these potential scams.”

“While most act selflessly and responsibly in a crisis like this, there are fraudsters out there who are attempting to scam and exploit good people,” said U.S. Attorney Terwilliger. “We are likely to see an uptick in government check scams tied to coronavirus-relief, including advanced-fee schemes promising government relief checks, student loan relief, and adjustments in other government benefits, such as increased social security payments. Remember, if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.”

“As we have seen over the past few weeks, the worst among us are finding new ways to exploit a global pandemic and prey upon the vulnerable,” said U.S. Attorney Cullen. “Americans need to be extremely vigilant in protecting their personal, financial, and tax information. Assume all unsolicited phone calls and emails regarding IRS or COVID-19 refunds and are potentially fraudulent. Do not respond and report them to law enforcement.”

In a matter of weeks, COVID-19 economic impact payments will be on their way. For most Americans, this will be a direct deposit into your bank account. For the unbanked individuals who have traditionally received tax refunds via paper check, they will receive their economic impact payment through the mail.

Scammers may try to get you to sign over your check to them or get you to “verify” your filing information in order to steal your money. Your personal information could then be used to file false tax returns in an identity theft scheme. Because of this, everyone receiving a COVID-19 economic impact payment is at risk.

Special Agent in Charge Jackson offers the following information and tips to spot a scam and understand how the COVID-19 related economic impact payments will be issued.

• The IRS will deposit your payment into the direct deposit account you previously provided on your tax return (or, in the alternative, send you a paper check).

• The IRS will NOT call and ask you to verify your payment details. Do NOT give your bank account, debit account, or PayPal account information to anyone – even if someone claims it’s necessary to get your check. It’s a scam.

• If you receive a call, do NOT engage with scammers, even if you want to tell them that you know it’s a scam. Just hang up.

• If you receive texts or emails claiming that you can get your money faster by sending personal identifying information or clicking on links, delete these texts and emails. Do NOT click on any links in those texts or emails.

• Reports are swirling about bogus checks. If you receive a “check” in the mail now, it’s a scam. It will take the Treasury a few more weeks to mail out the COVID-19 economic impact payments. If you receive a “check” for an odd amount (especially one with cents), or a check that requires you to verify the check online or by calling a number, it’s a scam.

• Remember, the federal government will not ask you to pay anything upfront to get a legitimate benefit. No fees. No charges. Anyone who asks for an up-front payment for a promised benefit is a scammer.

The Virginia Coronavirus Fraud Task Force: https://www.justice.gov/usao-wdva/covid-19-fraud

Western Virginia Coronavirus Fraud Coordinator, Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Baudinet, USAVAW.COVID19@usdoj.gov or 540-278-1494.

Eastern Virginia Coronavirus Fraud Coordinator, Assistant U.S. Attorney Kaitlin G. Cooke, Kaitlin.Cooke@usdoj.gov or 804-819-5416.

To report a COVID-19 fraud scheme or suspicious activity, contact the National Center for Disaster Fraud (NCDF) by calling the NCDF Hotline at 1-866-720-5721 or sending an email to disaster@leo.gov.

For more information, visit the IRS website at www.irs.gov/coronavirus

FBI at: https://www.ic3.gov or 804-261-1044.

To report fraudulent activity to the Virginia State Police, Virginians can contact the Virginia Fusion Center (VFC) at vfc@vfc.vsp.virginia.gov.

For continuing information on the COVID-19 virus and the federal response, check https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/index.html

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Governor Northam announces emergency funding to shelter Virginia’s homeless population

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~ Initial $2.5 million in funding will house unsheltered individuals, support case management ~

RICHMOND—Governor Ralph Northam today (April 3, 2020) announced an initial $2.5 million in emergency funding to shelter Virginia’s statewide homeless population during the COVID-19 pandemic. This emergency support will provide temporary housing for the approximately 1,500 Virginians who are currently unsheltered or rely on shelters that require them to leave every day. The funding will also provide housing for individuals in shelters that may need to be quarantined, or where social distancing is not feasible.

“As we battle this unprecedented public health crisis, we must make sure no one is left behind,” said Governor Northam. “I have issued a statewide Stay at Home order, but we know there are many Virginians with no home to stay in. With this funding, we will ensure people experiencing homelessness have access to immediate housing options and help prevent the spread of COVID-19.”

Funding will be used for hotel and motel vouchers, case management, food, cleaning supplies, and medical transportation. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) will provide partial funding to support individuals experiencing homelessness who are 65 and older, those with other pre-existing conditions, and those who have tested positive for COVID-19. People experiencing homelessness are more likely to have chronic health conditions that go untreated and are among the populations most vulnerable to the spread of COVID-19. In recent years, Virginia has seen an increase in the number of older adults experiencing homelessness.

Virginia’s housing support system also relies largely on the use of congregate shelters, which can lack adequate space for social distancing. The Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD) and the Virginia Department of Health (VDH) have provided guidance to homeless shelters on best practices to safely serve the homeless population during the COVID-19 epidemic. In addition, DHCD is preparing additional housing options for an estimated 10 percent of the 3,890 Virginians currently in shelters to allow space for social distancing and safe quarantine practices as needed.

The Commonwealth has implemented a number of state and federal protections against housing insecurity during the COVID-19 crisis. The Supreme Court of Virginia has suspended eviction proceedings in all district and circuit courts through April 26, and evictions for all Housing Choice Voucher holders are halted for 120 days.

For all mortgages guaranteed by federal mortgage programs, including Virginia Housing Development Authority (VHDA) mortgages, the mortgage provider will defer mortgage payments—principal plus interest—for up to three months for those who have lost income due to COVID-19.

Additional resources and information about Virginia’s COVID-19 response are available at virginia.gov/coronavirus.

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