California SEIU Hospital Benefits Clerk Sentenced for $1M+ Identity Theft

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SEIU logoMia Camille Garza describes herself as "somebody who has fallen off the path." Her victims understandably aren't as charitable. Last Thursday, September 22, Garza, a former benefits clerk for the California-based, Service Employees International Union-affiliated United Healthcare Workers West (SEIU-UHW), was sentenced in Sacramento Superior Court to 12 years and four months in prison for stealing information on nearly 30,000 union employees of Kaiser Permanente facilities throughout the state. The stolen information facilitated thefts, often of high-end merchandise, estimated thus far at more than $1 million. Garza pleaded no contest to 12 counts of identity theft on August 3. She's preparing for a restitution hearing on January 10. She already had been convicted in Contra Costa County, California on separate charges and sentenced to two years and eight months in prison. 

Computer identity theft has been rampant in this country for some two decades. Apparently, it's a game that union employees, at least Mia Garza, know how to play. Garza, now 31, worked at the Oakland office of United Healthcare Workers West (UHW), the 150,000-member SEIU affiliate whose bitter showdown of a few years ago between UHW President Sal Rosselli and Service Employees International Union President Andrew Stern was extensively chronicled in these pages. Internal politics wasn't the only form of mayhem. In July 2007, Garza illegally obtained information on about 29,500 Kaiser Permanente employees - a "treasure trove" of stolen data, as company compliance officer Bruce Burroughs described it. "Armed with that information, she was able to run credit reports on our employees," Burroughs noted. "She was able to identify their accounts. She changed their personal profiles, reopened closed accounts and opened new accounts and took advantage of instant credit offered by major credit card companies." The Excel spreadsheets with which she worked contained the names, addresses, dates of birth and Social Security numbers of union members employed by Kaiser.

Ms. Garza proved as adept at spending employee money as she was at stealing it. When it came to clothing and accessories, she favored prestige brand names such as Prada and Gucci, often keeping merchandise in sheds at various locations. She also charged 83 Nordstrom gift cards on a single stolen credit card. "We went from town to town through storage sheds, picking up items," said Deputy District Attorney Robert Clancey. Garza even laid down $11,145 for a liposuction appointment. A growing litany of complaints by Kaiser employees, perplexed over charges not their own, led Kaiser to contact authorities who arrested her in suburban (East Bay) Contra Costa County in January 2009. She promptly posted bail and resumed her errant ways, despite having to wear an electronic monitoring bracelet on her ankle - apparently she'd removed it. Finally, nearly a year later, in December 2009, the Sacramento Valley High-Tech Crimes Task Force arrested her while she was dressed in a surgical gown preparing for fat-reduction surgery at the expense of an unsuspecting Kaiser employee, Sierra Morgan; Garza had used Morgan's name as an alias. 

Expressing remorse in court, Garza described herself as "a sick single mother" and a manic depressive who "self-medicated" on crystal meth, maintaining she had been forced into identity theft by an abusive boyfriend. "I am not a career criminal," she told Sacramento Superior Court Judge Gary Ransom. "I'm simply somebody who has fallen off the path. I am somebody worth saving." That may be true, but her more than 300 victims might have preferred to save their credit rating. "Twelve years may seem like a long time in jail, but I'm sure my life and my credit will be affected for far many more years," said Michele Lites, a dietician whose name provided Garza with the opportunity to make $300,000 in unauthorized charges and who works at two Kaiser Permanente hospitals in Sacramento. "My biggest concern is that my personal information is still out there. It's in the ether. I never know when I'm going to have this situation pop up again." The aforementioned Sierra Morgan - the real one - weighed in this way: "I'm very glad she (Garza) was not able to get the liposuction. You cannot fix what's wrong with you on the inside by manipulating what's wrong with you on the outside." It's a philosophy with which few would argue.