Seventeen deputies at a South Florida sheriff’s office were charged with defrauding federal loan programs of nearly half a million dollars intended to help businesses that were struggling during the coronavirus pandemic, the authorities said.
The employees of the Broward Sheriff’s Office were charged in separate cases of wire fraud in connection with collecting money from the Paycheck Protection Program and the Economic Injury Disaster Loan, Markenzy Lapointe, the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Florida, announced at a news conference in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., on Thursday.
Sheriff Gregory Tony of Broward County said that the deputies facing charges represented “a cross-section of multiple disciplines” within his agency. Eight of them, including a sergeant, work in the law enforcement department, and nine, also including a sergeant, are assigned to the department of detention.
The Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act was an economic relief package enacted in March 2020, amid the Covid-19 pandemic, to provide emergency help to the millions of Americans struggling financially from its effects. The program included the authorization 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.
The 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 proceeds of the loans were not to be used to purchase consumer goods, automobiles, personal residences, clothing, jewelry or for cosmetic surgery,” Mr. Lapointe said at the news conference.
The deputies have been suspended, but have not been asked to resign, Sheriff Tony said at the news conference, noting that his department must follow administrative protocols for discipline and employees’ due rights.
But he added, “How can we have anyone out here wearing a badge that is stealing from the American people?”
In a statement, Matt Cowart, the president of the union representing Broward sheriff’s deputies, said the group was aware “of the investigation surrounding multiple employees.”
He added, “Currently, we are not privy to all of the investigative facts. Regardless, employees and all citizens are entitled to and shall receive due process through the court system.”
The Florida Bulldog, an online nonprofit news outlet, first reported that many Broward 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 at who among the department’s 5,500 employees had obtained payback-protection funds because loan fraud was becoming “an emerging trend within public service agencies,” Sheriff Tony said.
Shortly after, the department’s public corruption unit received a tip from a Broward Sheriff’s Office employee indicating that several employees might have committed fraud. The case was then handed over to the U.S. attorney’s office, the Federal Reserve Board’s Office of Inspector General and the F.B.I.
The maximum sentence for a wire fraud conviction is 20 years in prison, according to the U.S. attorney’s office. The maximum sentence for a conspiracy to commit wire fraud conviction, which one of the deputies was charged with, is five years in prison.
The South Florida U.S. attorney’s office has been investigating cases of pandemic relief fraud involving the loan program, which was “designed to keep small businesses afloat,” Mr. Lapointe said, adding that it has “proven to be ready targets” 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 those funds to buy a Lamborghini, jewelry and clothes, and a political consultant and daughter of a former South Florida mayor who was sentenced to 20 months in federal prison for lying on a Covid loan application to receive $300,000.