SEATTLE (AP) — Six people from Washington, Arizona and Texas have been arrested and accused of fraudulently obtaining millions of dollars of COVID-19 aid from an assistance program meant for renters, federal prosecutors said.
US Attorney Nick Brown, Western District of Washington, on Wednesday announced the arrests and charges of wire fraud and money laundering.
The six people are accused of filing hundreds of fraudulent applications seeking more than $6.8 million in government aid and receiving more than $3.3 million, The Seattle Times reported. Most of the alleged fraud was in Seattle’s King County, and focused on federal emergency rental assistance money available to prevent evictions, prosecutors said.
Prosecutors allege the scheme also targeted unemployment systems in Washington, California, South Carolina, and Nevada.
They are accused of spending the money on luxury cars, vacations, designer clothes, jewelry and plastic surgery.
“The participants in this fraud were relentless in exploiting pandemic relief programs that were intended to assist small businesses and people who were vulnerable to eviction,” Brown said in a statement.
Paradise Williams, 29, of Phoenix, Arizona, allegedly led the scheme, creating fake documents and telling her friends how to pose as landlords and tenants needing rental help, prosecutors said. Williams is charged with 19 counts of wire fraud and two counts of money laundering.
Others facing wire fraud and money laundering charges are: Rayvon Peterson, 32, of Seattle; Tia Rovinson, 28, of Fife, Washington; Jahari Cunningham, 45, of Houston, Texas; D’arius Jackson, 37, of Bonney Lake, Washington; and David Martinez, 32, of Pacific, Washington.
Martinez, Peterson and Jackson pleaded not guilty to the charges on Tuesday. The others do not appear to have had initial court appearances and arraignments yet and attempts to locate attorneys for them were not successful. Martinez’s lawyer didn’t respond to a request from the newspaper for comment Wednesday. Lawyers for Jackson and Peterson declined to comment to the newspaper.
Wire fraud in connection with a declared major disaster or emergency, such as the COVID-19 pandemic, is punishable by up to 30 years in prison. Money laundering is punishable by up to 20 years in prison.
Fraud was rampant in pandemic relief programs, according to the US Labour Department’s inspector general. President Joe Biden’s administration asked Congress in March to approve more than $1.6 billion to continue prosecuting people who committed fraud, to create new ways to prevent identity theft and to help people whose identities were stolen.