WASHINGTON - The U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation says it is investigating several hundred suspected fraud cases involving a popular economic relief program created for small businesses struggling due to the coronavirus pandemic.
John Jimenez, deputy assistant director of the FBI, said Thursday the bureau has identified nearly 500 individuals suspected of defrauding the program known as Paycheck Protection Program or PPP.
“We take this fraudulent activity seriously, and aggressively investigate each [case],” Jimenez said.
The disclosure came at a Justice Department press conference where U.S. law enforcement officials trumpeted new fraud charges against nearly a dozen defendants.
In all, the department’s criminal division has charged 57 people with defrauding the program, on top of a number of similar cases brought by federal prosecutors around the United States.
Brian Rabbitt, the acting chief of the criminal division, warned Thursday more charges are in the pipeline.
“Our work in ongoing,” Rabbitt said. “We are not done yet.”
The Paycheck Protection Program was created in March as part of a $2.2 trillion congressional economic stimulus package in response to the coronavirus pandemic. The program, administered by the Small Business Administration, offered forgivable loans to small businesses provided they used the funds to keep workers on their payrolls.
More than 5.2 million loans totaling at least $525 billion were ultimately given to borrowers, mostly small businesses, but in some cases, large corporations.
Congress is considering continuing the program as part of a new scaled-down stimulus package.
While the loan program aimed to provide a lifeline to distressed business owners, it also created opportunities for fraud.
The 57 people accused of defrauding the program attempted to steal $175 million from the program, ultimately costing the government $70 million in losses, Rabbitt said. The cases ranged from requests for as little as $30,000 to as much as $24 million.
“The money these defendants stole was taxpayer money,” Rabbitt said. “Every dollar received was a dollar drawn from the American people’s account. Even worse, every dollar they took was a dollar that we’d all set aside to help our fellow Americans weather one of the worst national crises in recent history.”
To obtain loans, the defendants allegedly lied about the number of their employees on their loan applications and submitted falsified tax documents, among other misrepresentations, according to law enforcement officials.
The first fraud charges under PPP were brought in May. In that case, two men from Massachusetts and Rhode Island allegedly sought more than half a million dollars in loans by claiming to own four businesses with dozens of employees, when they had none.
Others operated as part of coordinated criminal rings. In August, prosecutors charged the owner of a Florida-based talent management company and eight others in connection with a scheme to obtain more than $24 million in PPP loans.
Phillip J. Augustin, the owner of Clear Vision Music Group LLC, fraudulently obtained a loan for his company, prosecutors charged. Augustin and a co-conspirator then recruited other loan applicants, submitting applications on their behalf in exchange for kickbacks, according to court documents.
Others charged with defrauding the program include a reality TV personality in Georgia and two Florida neighbors who sought more than $1 million in loans by claiming to employ more than a dozen workers on “farms” located in the yards of their homes.
Those charged then went on personal spending sprees. The TV personality, Maurice Fayne, who goes by “Arkansas Mo” on a VH1 reality show, allegedly used a $2 million PPP loan to buy a Rolls-Royce and a Rolex watch, among other luxury items.
“PPP funds were intended to help keep American businesses afloat,” Rabbitt said. “I can assure you that they were not intended to help support fraudsters' dreams of owning Lamborghinis, Rolls-Royces, Range Rovers or diamonds.”