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Two Florida Men Plead Guilty to $35 Million COVID-19 Relief Fraud Scheme

Information reaching us has it that Two Florida men pleaded guilty this week in the Northern District of Ohio for leading a nationwide scheme to fraudulently obtain over $35 million in Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans guaranteed by the Small Business Administration (SBA) under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act.

According to court documents, James R. Stote, 55, of Hollywood, and Phillip J. Augustin, 52, of Coral Springs, conspired to obtain millions of dollars in fraudulent PPP loans. Augustin and Stote obtained a fraudulent PPP loan for Augustin’s company, Clear Vision Music Group LLC, using falsified documents. After submitting that application, Stote and Augustin immediately began working to obtain larger PPP loans for themselves and their associates. Stote and Augustin recruited additional PPP loan applicants and prepared and submitted fraudulent loan applications for them in exchange for a share of the loan proceeds. The applications they submitted for all of the loans in the scheme relied on fake payroll numbers, falsified IRS forms and phony bank statements. They submitted or facilitated at least 79 fraudulent loan applications worth at least $35 million and planned to submit more.

“These convictions, and the numerous convictions of others involved in this wide-ranging conspiracy, demonstrate that people will be held accountable for defrauding the PPP Program,” said Assistant Attorney General Kenneth A. Polite Jr. of the Justice Department’s Criminal Division. “Fraud against PPP programs directly harms taxpayers and undermine public trust in essential government support during the pandemic. We will continue to combat fraud and ensure that COVID-19 relief goes to those who deserve it.”

“While many businesses in our communities relied upon relief funds to keep their doors open and employees paid, these defendants profited off a scheme that stole millions of taxpayer dollars intended for struggling businesses and spent it lavishly on themselves,” said First Assistant U.S. Attorney Michelle M. Baeppler for the Northern District of Ohio. “Theft of government funds will not be tolerated, and prosecuting PPP fraud remains a priority for law enforcement.”

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Stote and Augustin each pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit wire fraud. They are scheduled to be sentenced at a later date and each face a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison. A federal district court judge will determine any sentence after considering the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines and other statutory factors.

In addition, Diamond Smith, 37, of Miramar, was sentenced today to 20 months after pleading guilty on Aug. 4 in the Southern District of Florida to conspiracy to commit wire fraud. Smith, a recording artist, admitted to obtaining a PPP loan of $426,717 for his company, Throwbackjersey.com LLC, using falsified documents and false information. Upon completion of that loan, Smith then sought and obtained another PPP loan of $708,065 for his other company, Blue Star Records LLC, using falsified documents and false information. Smith admitted to using PPP loan proceeds at the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel and Casino and on luxury items, including a Ferrari. Authorities seized the Ferrari at the time of Smith’s arrest. Smith further admitted that he paid more than $250,000 to Stote and Augustin as kickbacks for their assistance in preparing and submitting the fraudulent loan applications. Smith was ordered to pay $1,111345.23 in restitution and $1,134,782 in forfeiture in addition to his term of imprisonment.

“When the Paycheck Protection Program was implemented over one year ago, our Office committed to protecting South Floridians from those trying to exploit the Covid-19 pandemic,” said U.S. Attorney Juan Antonio Gonzalez for the Southern District of Florida. “Our work is not done. We will continue to hold accountable those who wrongfully obtain funds intended to help struggling small businesses survive the current health and economic crisis.”

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“From submitting false documentation to recruiting other individuals, the defendants went to great lengths to defraud the Paycheck Protection Program of millions of dollars,” said Special Agent in Charge Bryant Jackson of IRS Criminal Investigation (IRS-CI), Cincinnati Field Office. “IRS-CI will continue to work with our law enforcement partners to hold those accountable that defraud programs designed to help struggling Americans and businesses.”

“This sentencing serves as a deterrent to anyone who would commit fraud targeting COVID-19 relief programs,” said Acting Assistant Director Jay Greenberg of the FBI’s Criminal Investigative Division. “Programs like these were created to help individuals during a pandemic, not for fraudsters to take advantage for personal gain. The FBI will continue to pursue criminal actors who engage in this activity.”

“Conspiring to fraudulently use SBA program funds is unacceptable,” said Special Agent in Charge Sharon Johnson of the SBA Office of Inspector General’s (SBA-OIG) Central Region. “OIG will aggressively root out fraud to protect the integrity of SBA’s programs, which are intended to provide vital assistance to the nation’s small businesses. I want to thank the Department of Justice and our law enforcement partners for their dedication and commitment to seeing justice served.”

In total, 25 people have been charged for their participation in this scheme in the Northern District of Ohio, Southern District of Florida and Middle District of North Carolina. To date, 20 of those defendants have been convicted.

The IRS-CI, FBI and SBA-OIG are investigating the cases.

Trial Attorney Philip Trout of the Criminal Division’s Fraud Section and Assistant U.S. Attorneys Elliot Morrison of the Northern District of Ohio and David Turken and Aimee Jimenez of the Southern District of Florida are prosecuting the cases.

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The Fraud Section leads the Criminal Division’s prosecution of fraud schemes that exploit the PPP. Since the inception of the CARES Act, the Fraud Section has prosecuted over 150 defendants in more than 95 criminal cases and has seized over $75 million in cash proceeds derived from fraudulently obtained PPP funds, as well as numerous real estate properties and luxury items purchased with such proceeds. More information can be found at https://www.justice.gov/criminal-fraud/ppp-fraud.

On May 17, 2021, the Attorney General established the COVID-19 Fraud Enforcement Task Force to marshal the resources of the Department of Justice in partnership with agencies across government to enhance efforts to combat and prevent pandemic-related fraud. The Task Force bolsters efforts to investigate and prosecute the most culpable domestic and international criminal actors and assists agencies tasked with administering relief programs to prevent fraud by, among other methods, augmenting and incorporating existing coordination mechanisms, identifying resources and techniques to uncover fraudulent actors and their schemes, and sharing and harnessing information and insights gained from prior enforcement efforts. For more information on the department’s response to the pandemic, please visit https://www.justice.gov/coronavirus.

Anyone with information about allegations of attempted fraud involving COVID-19 can report it by calling the Department of Justice’s National Center for Disaster Fraud (NCDF) Hotline at 866-720-5721 or via the NCDF Web Complaint Form at https://www.justice.gov/disaster-fraud/ncdf-disaster-complaint-form.

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