By Dan Christensen, FloridaBulldog.org
In the most sweeping scandal to hit a South Florida police agency since the indictment of 13 Miami officers in a deadly gun-planting conspiracy in 2001, 17 Broward Sheriff’s deputies turned themselves in Thursday to face federal fraud charges for stealing from the COVID-19 Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) and another pandemic relief loan program.
The theft, by usual federal prosecutorial standards, was small potatoes. In all, the 17 deputies stole a total of $495,000, said U.S. Attorney Markenzy LaPointe during a Thursday afternoon press conference at the Broward Sheriff’s Office. He did not say how the accused spent those stolen funds.
“While the charging documents do not allege that any of the defendants committed their offenses during the course of their official duties, this does not in any way diminish the seriousness of what the defendants are alleged to have done,” LaPointe said.
Added Wayne Rosen, assistant special agent in charge of the Miami Office of the Federal Reserve’s Inspector General’s Office and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, “Today’s announcement demonstrates our unwavering commitment to holding accountable those who exploit and defraud financial institutions, and the government’s pandemic response, no matter who they are.’’
The news that 17 deputies were charged, while highly embarrassing, came as something of a relief to deputies who feared worse. On Wednesday, Florida Bulldog reported that one veteran deputy said the internal rumor at headquarters was that 50 to 70 deputies and civilian employees would be charged. No additional charges are contemplated, although the investigation continues, authorities said.
17 DEPUTIES LOOKING FOR PLEA DEALS?
The other surprise at the Thursday announcement was that the 17 were charged via individual felony informations filed by U.S. Attorney LaPointe, not combined in a single indictment. This would appear to indicate the 17 are seeking to negotiate plea deals with favorable terms.
Sixteen officers were charged with wire fraud, and in another defendant’s case, conspiracy to commit wire fraud.
Prosecutors are also seeking to forfeit assets of all the accused.
Authorities said the thefts were not coordinated, nor was there any ringleader. Each of the accused simply saw an opportunity for theft during a nationwide emergency from a generous federal program that had no apparent safeguards at the outset.
Broward Sheriff Gregory Tony broke down for reporters where the 17 worked at BSO. “It is a cross section of multiple disciplines within the organization,” he said. They include eight from the law-enforcement division, including one sergeant; and nine from the department of corrections, also including a sergeant. All were suspended Thursday without pay; most were initially suspended on Oct. 9 with pay, BSO records show. All received bonds at initial appearances before a magistrate in federal court in Fort Lauderdale.
TONY URGES CHIEFS TO FLUSH OUT FRAUDSTERS
The deputies indicted and their posts before suspension are: Sgt. George Anthony, West Park; Dep. Alexandra Acosta, SWAT fugitive unit; Dep. Rorie Brown, Tamarac; Dep. La’Keitha Lawhorn; Dep. Derrick Nesbitt, Deerfield Beach; Dep. Marcus Powell, Deerfield Beach; Dep. Stephanie Smith, Pompano; Dep. Jean Pierre-Toussant, Tamarac.
The detention deputies who are charged: Sgt. Ancy Morancy, Main Jail; Dep. Katrina Brown, Main Jail, was first suspended on May 2 with pay; Dep. Ke’Shondra Davis, Main Jail; Dep., Allen Dorvil, Main Jail; Dep. Ritchie Dubuisson; Dep. Keith Dunkley, no assignment listed, and he resigned for “personal reasons” in September; Dep. Alexis Greene, Juvenile Assessment Center; Dep. Jewell Johnson, Joseph V. Conte jail facility; Dep. Carolyn D. Wade, Central Intake Facility.
Sheriff Tony said he initiated the investigation that led to Thursday’s charges in 2021. “We started examining, witnessing what was occurring and under my orders I authorized our public corruption unit to investigate all 5,500 [BSO] employees,” he said. About 100 employees obtained PPP loans, but other than the 17 who were charged, all obeyed the law in completing their applications for funding.
Tony urged the heads of other police agencies to follow his example and conduct a sweeping check of their employees to root out fraudsters.
“We have worked too hard to allow us to become sloppy and to have one or two individuals to tarnish our reputation,” he said. “We have done a great job with this community to reestablish the public trust over the last five years. So, I’m empowering our employees: If you see something, I expect you to say something. I expect you to bring us more information if there’s any other type of misconduct or corruption occurring from any colleague in his place.”
PPP LOAN PROGRAM
The PPP was a $950-billion, low-interest business loan program established as part of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act (CARES Act) signed into law by former President Trump to help various businesses and the self-employed to continue to pay their workers during the worst months of the pandemic.
The loans could be partially or fully forgiven if businesses accepting the loans kept their employee count and wages stable. The program, administered by the Small Business Administration (SBA), ended May 31, 2021.
Fraudsters, however, took advantage of the program. In June, the SBA reported that over the course of the pandemic it disbursed a total of $1.2 trillion in both PPP and COVID-19 Economic Injury Disaster Loans (EIDL). EIDL loans were intended to provide small businesses with both working capital and operating funds.
The SBA estimated in June that more than $200 billion in potentially fraudulent pandemic loans were disbursed. That amounted to 17 percent of all such loans.
About $30 billion has been recovered to date.