Idaho’s top federal prosecutor has created a task force to combat fraud related to the COVID-19 pandemic.
U.S. Attorney Josh Hurwit this week announced in a news release the creation of the District of Idaho’s COVID-19 Fraud Task Force, made up of “a broad group of law enforcement agencies, with prosecutors who will work jointly to hold accountable criminals who unjustly enriched themselves at the expense of taxpayers by defrauding economic aid programs.”
The task force will include representatives from the law enforcement and investigation arms of the Small Business Administration, Internal Revenue Service, U.S. Department of Treasury, FBI, Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, Social Security Administration, U.S. Department of Agriculture, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, U.S. Postal Inspection Service and U.S. Secret Service.
The task force will identify, investigate and prosecute fraud cases involving the abuse of programs that were created to help people and small businesses weather the COVID-19 pandemic since 2020, such as the Paycheck Protection Program, Economic Injury Disaster Loans, Coronavirus Farm Assistance Program, Emergency Rental Assistance Program and enhanced unemployment payments.
The task force is seeking tips from the public. Make a report to the COVID-19 Pandemic Fraud Hotline at www.pandemicoversight.gov/contact/about-hotline or directly to the U.S. Attorney’s Office at 208-334-1211.
Investigators and prosecutors have identified and charged several Idahoans in connection with allegedly creating businesses or falsifying information to claim COVID-19 assistance.
Among them are:
- Nicholas Jones, a 36-year-old Boise resident and small business owner who unsuccessfully opposed U.S. Rep. Russ Fulcher in the 2020 Republican primary. Jones was sentenced Oct. 19 to 30 months in federal prison and a $100,000 fine, for wire fraud and filing false campaign finance disclosures, the news release from Hurwit’s office said. Jones received $753,600 in PPP and Economic Injury Disaster Loan payments. Instead of using them for his business, the release said, he used “a significant portion” for personal expenses, such as car payments, life insurance, mortgage payments and to buy “a significant amount” of stocks and investments. Jones also spent the funds on political advertising for his congressional campaign, and to pay his restaurant’s employees for their work on his campaign, the release said.
- Douglas Wold, of Meridian, who was sentenced in December to 41 months in federal prison for wire fraud, mail fraud and money laundering related to a COVID-19 testing scheme. “Wold deposited the funds he received into a bank account he controlled and did not pay the health provider that actually conducted the testing,” the release said. Wold used $69,116 of the ill-gotten gains to buy a speedboat and trailer, the release said.
- Jeff C. Vogt, of Caldwell, who received $250,000 in CFAP funds by claiming he produced but couldn’t sell 22.5 million pounds of dry onions in the first few months of the pandemic. Vogt did not respond to a civil lawsuit; the court entered a default judgment for $761,665 against him.
- Lawrence Sikutwa, of Boise, was indicted this month on charges of bank fraud, aggravated identity theft and money laundering. Sikutwa allegedly filed fraudulent applications and obtained $337,976 in PPP loans from two banks, then used the money for personal and non-business related expenses, the release said.
- Three defendants from other states, who were indicted in July with bank fraud related to more than $2.4 million in PPP loans they received from a financial institution in Boise, the release said.
— This article was originally published on idahocapitalsun.com.