Luxurious lifestyles fueled by fraud
Published 6:06 pm Thursday, November 16, 2023
Government red tape should come inside boxes marked with a warning label that reads: Open carefully, frustration inside.
Frustration is a good way to describe government programs. On one hand, those programs are the only thing separating a recipient from the poor house. On the other hand are those in charge of distributing those dollars to those in dire need.
Did you know that nearly seven years after Hurricane Matthew inflicted his wrath on our state, the ReBuild NC program still hasn’t completed its work. Some of those storm victims are still living in cramped motel rooms while the work drags on to fix their severely damaged homes. There are even a few cases where the repair work has yet to get underway.
That, in a word, is pathetic.
On the flip side of the governmental program record are recipients guilty of fraud. This isn’t a Johnny-come-lately problem. As long as there are government programs, there will be those trying to milk the cow for each and every dime they can get, and most are doing that fraudulently.
Case in point is an Associated Press story I read online last week. The article centered on the enormous number of fraudulent applications submitted when our federal officials started handing out COVID relief money like it was candy.
And, to some, that “candy” was awful sweet…as long as they didn’t get their hands caught in the proverbial cookie jar.
The AP reports that the U.S. government has disbursed $4.3 trillion to mitigate the economic devastation wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic. Of that amount, more than $280 billion was fraudulently obtained while another $123 billion was wasted or misspent.
The AP reported that Florida businessman Patrick Parker Walsh is serving five and half years in federal prison for stealing nearly $8 million in federal COVID-19 relief funds that he used, in part, to buy a small island off the Gulf Coast.
Between March 2020 and January 2021, Walsh submitted more than 30 fraudulent applications for emergency pandemic aid.
He’s just one of hundreds of thieves and scam artists who spent lavishly on houses, luxury watches and diamond jewelry, Lamborghinis and other expensive cars. The stolen aid also paid for long nights at strip clubs, gambling sprees in Las Vegas, and bucket-list vacations.
And to cash in on this cash cow, all the swindlers had to do was to lie on an application and keep their fingers and toes crossed that they wouldn’t get caught.
The AP reported that thieves came from all walks of life and all corners of the globe. There was a Tennessee rapper who bragged about the ease of stealing more than $700,000 in pandemic unemployment insurance on YouTube. A former pizzeria owner and host of a cryptocurrency-themed radio show bought an alpaca farm in Vermont with pilfered aid. And an ex-Nigerian government official who grabbed about half a million dollars in COVID-19 relief benefits was wearing a $10,000 watch and $35,000 gold chain when he was arrested.
New York based doctor Konstantinos Zarkadas is charged with falsifying at least 11 separate applications for pandemic aid that netted him almost $3.8 million, according to prosecutors. He bought Rolex and Cartier wristwatches valued at $140,000 for himself and family members and made a hefty down payment on a yacht, according to court records.
Dr. Zarkadas used about $3 million to pay off part of an earlier civil judgment against him for breaching a real estate lease. And, to basically “stick it to the man”, he used $80,000 of his ill-gotten booty to settle a federal lawsuit alleging he violated the Controlled Substances Act by dispensing more than 20,000 doses of a weight-loss drug without keeping accurate records, prosecutors said.
The state of New York revoked Zarkadas’ medical license shortly after he was sentenced to more than four years in prison for swiping the pandemic aid.
In Houston, Texas comes the story of Lee E. Price III. He got his hands on nearly $1.7 million by submitting bogus aid applications on behalf of businesses that existed only on paper, according to court records.
With some of that money, Price purchased a $14,000 Rolex and spent more than $233,000 for a Lamborghini Urus, a luxury SUV. He also spent thousands of dollars at a Houston stripclub.
But Price paid the price for the crime as he was sentenced to more than nine years in prison.
Vinath Oudomsine of Georgia also created a fake company that he claimed had 10 employees. A few weeks after Oudomsine applied for the pandemic aid, the government sent him $85,000 to keep his non-existent business afloat.
At Oudomsine’s sentencing last year, U.S. District Judge Dudley H. Bowen called Oudomsine’s theft “an $85,000 insult” to a country reeling from the pandemic.
The Associated Press story went on to say that nearly 3,200 defendants have been charged with COVID-19 relief fraud, according to the U.S. Justice Department. About $1.4 billion in stolen pandemic aid has been seized.
However, the scale and scope of the fraud are too large, meaning that a large number of those thieves will not be caught.
“The uncomfortable truth is the federal criminal justice system is simply not equipped to fully address the unprecedented volume of pandemic relief fraud cases, large and small, and involving thousands upon thousands of domestic and foreign actors,” said Bob Westbrooks, former executive director of the federal Pandemic Response Accountability Committee, who was quoted in the AP story.
I read all this and think about the thousands of dollars my wife and I pay each year in federal taxes. Guess I could “adjust” a few numbers on my tax return in an effort to avoid paying so much tax, but, on second thought, I’d rather not live in an 8×8 foot cell.
Cal Bryant is the Editor of Roanoke-Chowan Publications. Contact him at email@example.com or 252-332-7207.