ATLANTA — Investigators are calling it one of the largest frauds in American history — money intended to go to people hurt financially by the pandemic instead stolen by fake companies and con artists.
Channel 2 investigative reporter Justin Gray learned that federal prosecutors here in Georgia alone have hundreds of cases.
All the data on who received these loans is publicly available.
Gray looked through the information and some of these companies aren’t registered with the secretary of state and don’t have an online presence.
He wanted to find them and ask a simple question: What does your company do?
Turns out, that wasn’t so simple.
Gray went to a Gwinnett County home looking for a company that received more than $22,000 in federal Paycheck Protection Program payments.
He could not find “Money Ain’t a Problem Entertainment LLC.” active online or registered with the Georgia secretary of state.
“He received a PPP loan and there is no record of the business existing, so I’m just trying to figure out what it is,” Gray asked the woman who answered the door.
Channel 2 Action News dug through thousands of pages of PPP data and found that more than 553,000 PPP loans were handed out in Georgia, totaling more than $24 billion.
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But we know that millions of dollars of that money here in Georgia went to fake companies trying to steal your tax dollars.
“I think it’s a righteous use of your federal tax dollars to go after these people,” said David Estes, U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Georgia.
“You’re sending the message here, if you cheat the American taxpayers, we’re going to find you,” Gray said.
“And we will,” Estes said.
Estes said it does not matter how small the dollar amount of the potential fraud is.
“We’re going to look at every single case. Some of the smaller cases have led us to bigger cases,” Estes said.
One of the cases that Estes is prosecuting involves Dacula resident Ashley Parker, who allegedly submitted more than two dozen fraudulent applications for COVID-19 relief adding up to $2 million.
Prosecutors charge that she spent part of those illegal proceeds on plastic surgery, including breast augmentation and liposuction.
Gray tried to track down Parker at her Dacula home. When he and his photojournalist arrived at the home listed for Parker, they found luxury cars — a Mercedes-Benz and Lexus — in the driveway.
The person who answered the doorbell called them expletives.
“Is Ashley here?
“No, your mamma is,” the person told Gray.
“No, I don’t think so. I’m looking for Ashley Parker — she’s charged with stealing millions of dollars from the federal government,” Gray told the person.
“Get off my porch, man before I put something in both ya’ll a**,” that person in the home said.
It was nearly two years ago that Gray tracked down Tabronx Smith at his Gwinnett County business, Market Yourself LLC.
At that time, he maintained he never stole PPP funds as a federal indictment alleged.
“Do me a favor — don’t do me at my business like that,” Smith said then.
“Well, it is your business that’s the concern here,” Gray said to Smith.
“Alright, well I just have no comment,” Smith said.
“Did you try to swindle the paycheck protection?” Gray asked Smith.
“No, I did not sir,” Smith said.
“Did you do everything by the book?” Gray asked Smith.
“Yes sir,” Smith said.
“Why would they indict you?” Gray asked Smith.
That was when Smith attempted to cover our camera.
Smith has now entered a guilty plea and in its sentencing memorandum, the U.S. attorney is asking for a 21-month prison term.
So, what about Money Ain’t a Problem Entertainment LLC?
No one associated with the company is facing criminal charges, but Channel 2 Action News still can’t find any signs of a business or employees earning paychecks.
The woman who answered the door promised to go get the owner of Money Ain’t a Problem to answer our questions, so Gray waited and waited.
“He’s not here,” the woman in the house eventually said.
“He’s not here? So, is it your son or your husband?” Gray asked.
He never heard back from Money Ain’t a Problem.
Over the summer, President Joe Biden signed bills extending the statute of limitations for pandemic-related fraud to 10 years from five.
“I’m sure a lot of these people think, hey, I got the money, I’m on my way. And you’re here to say that’s not the case?” Gray said.
“No, that’s not the case. We’ve got 16 different federal agencies working on this,” Estes said.
With $24 billion given out just in Georgia, there are definitely some criminals who thought they could get away with stealing $10,000, $20,000, $30,000 and nobody would notice or catch them. They might still think they got away with it.
But hundreds of federal agents and prosecutors are now digging through reams of data, looking for signs of fake companies.
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