Special prosecutor for COVID crooks: ‘we’ll catch you’

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JACKSONVILLE, Florida – An unpleasant side effect of the COVID-19 pandemic has nothing to do with your physical health: the fraudulent use of Paycheck Protection Program loans made to small business owners during the pandemic.

I-TEAM has identified $ 3.8 billion in PPP loans linked to addresses in Northeast Florida. Although the vast majority of the money is used for legitimate business reasons, a special Inspector General for Pandemic Recovery has been appointed to oversee cases of fraud related to the CARES Act.

The position of Special Inspector General Brian Miller is relatively new, but it has great authority. His office has developed leads in more than 100 investigations into suspected fraud cases, which have now been turned over to law enforcement.

One loan that caught the attention of the federal government involved a family in central Florida operating as a ministry.

“The Lord will give you encouraging signs, stay in the faith,” said ASLAN international pastor Evan Williams, in a video posted to his Facebook page.

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The family ran ASLAN International from a small office in Orlando, but according to the Department of Justice, no one has ever seen activity at the office.

Investigators said Evan Williams, his wife, Mary Jane, and grown children Josh and Joy attempted to buy a $ 3.5 million home in the private Four Seasons community at Walt Disney World. The government said the family defrauded the government on $ 8.4 million in PPP loans.

The government is now recovering this money through a civil judgment.

Miller and his team look for a variety of red flags when looking for cases of fraud.

“Sometimes they overestimate their assets or overestimate their liabilities. Sometimes they say they have more employees than they have. Sometimes they set up fraudulent companies, so they have shell companies so they can go back and get loans for other companies that don’t exist on paper, ”Miller told I-TEAM.

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Miller said it was particularly disturbing to hear that people were using money allocated by the government to help people suffering from the pandemic buy Lamborghinis, boats and houses.

“It really touches me. It upsets me, ”Miller said. “We stumbled across something recently where they bought a yacht, a plane and we want them to know we’re going to catch you. We are reviewing all the information we can. “

News4Jax has learned that the extent of the fraud is so widespread that the Justice Department is hiring local lawyers, planning extremely important cases and lawsuits that could drag on for years to come. Miller’s office and other members of the Justice Department rely on local, state, and federal resources at all levels to collect taxpayer dollars.

To give you an idea of ​​how much is borrowed to run small businesses, I-TEAM has broken down the latest data from the Small Business Administration on PPP loans to businesses in Northeast Florida’s 11 counties. Here’s a look at the categories of businesses that collectively borrowed the most money:

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$ 355,385,549 Food service, including restaurants and caterers
$ 230,320,525 Non-profit organizations (including religious organizations and schools)
$ 213,516,065 Doctors and dental offices
$ 131,372,294 Contractors, including electricians, plumbers, and air conditioning companies
$ 89,529,689 Law firms

Senator Marco Rubio points out that the majority of small business owners used the P3 loan money properly and relied on it to keep their businesses open during the height of the pandemic.

“The future of the paycheck protection program is now to get forgiveness from people, if they spent the money the way it was meant to be spent, and that kept employees engaged, that’s all. purpose of the program, ”said Rubio.

Under the PPP loan guidelines, borrowers can qualify for loan forgiveness if they meet certain conditions for 24 weeks after obtaining the loan, including using the money for payroll and other eligible expenses.

Rubio is also aware of the growing fraud, saying it is important for the federal government to hold those who have abused CARES Act money accountable.

“I think the key is to find the people who abused the program and put them in jail and make an example of that,” Rubio said. “I think you are going to see surveys in the years to come.”

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If you would like to report suspected fraud under the CARES Act, you can call the Special Inspector General for Pandemic Recovery Hotline at 202-927-7899. For a complete list of local businesses that have received PPP money and how much they have received, we’ve created a database below to search.

(App users, click here if you have trouble loading the database.)

Copyright 2021 by WJXT News4Jax – All rights reserved.



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