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Woman caught spending fraudulent COVID relief money after being released from jail

By Sarah May
|
February 9, 2023

Bringing an end to a case that epitomized the rampant fraud that has plagued federal COVID-19 relief programs, a 30-year-old Tennessee woman was sentenced this week after having pleaded guilty to unlawfully obtaining funds through the Payroll Protection Program (PPP) back in 2021, as NBC News reports.

Leslie Bethea of Surgoinsville received a penalty of 78 months in federal prison when sentenced by Judge J. Ronnie Greer, according to a Tuesday press release from the Department of Justice.

Fraud scheme explained

As the DOJ described, Bethea sought and secured a PPP loan on March 29, 2021 in the amount of $20,805, a disbursement that was fully forgivable by the federal government, provided its stated terms were met.

On her loan application, Bethea represented that during 2019, she had earned a total of $99,835 and also that she had no fraud-related convictions on her record in the prior five years.

Bethea also submitted a Schedule C tax form – ultimately revealed to contain fraudulent information – as support for her claim of income loss stemming from the pandemic.

Notably, however, and as authorities eventually discovered, 2019 happened to be a year when Bethea was incarcerated for wire fraud offenses, rendering her claim of more than $99,000 in income during that time period an impossibility.

Luxury expenditures, blatant lies

Despite the material misrepresentations on her loan application, Bethea received her PPP proceeds in April of 2021 and embarked on a spending spree that would ultimately compound her legal troubles.

Once the PPP funds were in hand, Bethea embarked on a five-day vacation at a pricey resort in Sunny Isles Beach, Florida, where one-bedroom suites can cost upwards of $600 per night, according to the Daily Mail.

While in Florida, Bethea reportedly spent an additional chunk of her loan proceeds on elective cosmetic surgery, though the precise nature of the procedure was not revealed.

After making her way back home to Tennessee, Bethea provided her probation officer in the prior fraud case with a false report on her activities for the month of April, declaring that she had realized only $200 in income, had incurred expenses totaling no more than $500, and had not left the state during the relevant time period.

Sentence rendered

Following her June 14, 2022 indictment by a federal grand jury on charges of conspiracy to commit wire fraud, wire fraud, money laundering, and making false statements, Bethea decided to enter a plea.

In the end, Bethea agreed to plead guilty to a single count of wire fraud and one count of making a false statement to a federal probation officer.

As a result of her admissions, Bethea was sentenced to 78 months in prison as well as a subsequent three-year period of supervised release.

Judge Greer also ordered Bethea to pay financial restitution in the amount of $20,805.

House Republicans launch probe

As part of the aggressive agenda of the new House Republican majority, the GOP-led Oversight Committee last week held a hearing to explore what may have led to the reported theft of billions of dollars from federal COVID-19 relief initiatives, as ABC News reported.

A recently released report from a government spending watchdog group suggested that approximately $5.5 billion in aid money meant for small businesses crippled by pandemic shutdowns may have instead fallen into the hands of scammers.

Oversight Committee chair James Comer (KY-01) explained in his opening remarks to the panel, “We owe it to the American people to get to the bottom of the greatest theft of taxpayer dollars in history.”

“We must identify where this money went, how much ended in the hands of fraudsters or ineligible participants and what should be done to ensure it never happens again,” said Comer, and cases like Bethea's only serve to bolster the validity of the congressman's assertion.