Florida lawmakers accused of defrauding nearly $500,000 in Covid funds

Seventeen deputies with a South Florida sheriff’s office have been charged with defrauding a federal loan program of nearly half a million dollars meant to help businesses struggling during the coronavirus pandemic, authorities said.

Employees of the Broward Sheriff’s Office have been charged in separate cases of wire fraud related to the collection of money from the Wage Protection and Economic Injury Loan programs, Markenzy Lapointe, U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Florida, announced at a news conference. in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., on Thursday.

Broward County Sheriff Gregory Tony said the deputies facing charges represent a “cross-section of disciplines” within his agency. Eight of them, including the sergeant, work in the law enforcement division, and nine, including the sergeant, are assigned to the detention division.

The Coronavirus Relief, Assistance, and Economic Security Act was an economic relief package enacted in March 2020, in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic, to provide emergency relief to millions of Americans struggling financially from its effects. The program included the approval of hundreds of billions of dollars in forgivable loans to help small businesses stay afloat by helping pay their employees and providing loans for other expenses.

Employees of the sheriff’s office used the $495,171 they collectively received from those programs “to unjustly enrich themselves,” Mr. Lapointe’s office said.

“The loan proceeds were not used to purchase consumer goods, cars, personal residences, clothing, jewelry or cosmetic surgery,” Mr. Lapointe said at a news conference.

The deputies have been suspended but have not been asked to resign, Sheriff Tony said at a news conference, noting that his department must follow administrative protocols for discipline and employee rights.

But he added, “How can we have someone here wearing a badge that is stealing from the American people?”

In a statement, Matt Cowart, president of the union representing Broward’s sheriff’s deputies, said the group is aware of the “investigation involving multiple employees.”

He added: “At the moment we are not aware of all the facts of the investigation. Regardless, employees and all citizens have the right and will have the right to a prescribed procedure through the court system.”

The Florida Bulldog, an online nonprofit news outlet, first time reported that many of Broward’s sheriff’s deputies were under federal investigation for loan fraud.

The investigation began in November 2021 after the Broward Sheriff’s Office of Inspector General began looking into who among the department’s 5,500 employees received repayment protection funds because loan fraud was becoming “an emerging trend in public service agencies,” the sheriff said Tony.

Shortly thereafter, the Department’s Public Corruption Unit received a tip from Broward Sheriff’s Office officials that several employees may have committed fraud. The case was then turned over to the US Attorney’s office, the Federal Reserve Board’s Office of Inspector General, and the FBI

According to the US Attorney’s office, the maximum penalty for fraud is 20 years in prison. The maximum penalty for conspiring to commit fraud, for which one of the deputies was charged, is five years in prison.

The South Florida U.S. attorney’s office is investigating cases of pandemic relief fraud related to the loan program, which is “designed to keep small businesses afloat,” Mr. Lapointe, adding that it “proved to be a ready target” for people looking to “profit from fraud.”

Numerous other people have been arrested and charged with misusing pandemic relief funds, including a Miami man who spent the funds on Lamborghinis, jewelry and clothing, and a political consultant and the daughter of a former South Florida mayor who he was sentenced to 20 months in federal prison because he lied on his Covid loan application to receive $300,000.

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