ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (KRQE) – Federal authorities promised not to let pandemic fraudsters off easy. Now, for the first time, they have charged three people in Albuquerque who are accused of stealing pandemic relief funds.
The suspects allegedly used relief funds to go on a shopping spree, which included a private jet flight, real estate, and designer merchandise, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. Federal prosecutors have called this type of work a top focus since the pandemic – tracking down COVID relief crooks.
“Combating all types of fraud is a top Department of Justice priority,” said Lisa Monaco, Deputy Attorney General. “There were some in the United States and abroad who exploited the crisis to engage in benefit fraud to the tune of hundreds of billions of dollars,” said Monaco.
New Mexico is no exception; three New Mexicans, who investigators say fraudulently took nearly a million dollars in funding from the Paycheck Protection Program, have been indicted by a federal grand jury.
Bryan Gardea and Jacqueline Rascon-Chacon are now facing bank fraud charges They, along with Ricardo Landeros, also face accusations of wire fraud conspiracy and money laundering, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. Investigators believe the three made up businesses and employee rosters, submitting that fake info to access relief funds for themselves.
Investigators say the three used that funding to pay off debts, charter a private jet from Albuquerque to Las Vegas, Nevada, and hire a mariachi band. So, while that money should have been used to keep businesses alive, it was allegedly used to support a luxurious lifestyle.
The DOJ says they will continue to crack down on fraud. “Our campaign to address pandemic relief fraud is not limited to a three-month sweep of arrests and seizures and prosecutions,” said Monaco.
The indictment doesn’t prove that the three Albuquerque suspects are guilty. They are still considered innocent until proven otherwise in court, and the three Albuquerque suspects have all been released while awaiting trial.
If they do end up convicted, they face up to 30 years in prison and a $1 million fine. They could also have to give up the properties and assets they bought, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.
Across the nation, multiple individuals have been accused of misusing COVID-19 relief funds. Earlier this year, a California man as sentenced to more than four years in prison for using PPP loans to buy luxury cars.
As early as 2021, the Government Accountability Office raised concerns that the relief programs were at high risk for fraud. So far, federal authorities have seized nearly $1.8 billion in stolen relief funds.