East Tennesseans accused of fraud in Paycheck Protection loans
An East Tennessee woman who was already on probation in a federal fraud case is now accused of duping the Small Business Administration into awarding her a Paycheck Protection Program loan for a fake business and using the money to get plastic surgery in Florida and spend a week recovering at the Trump International Beach Resort, court records show.
Leslie Danielle Bethea, 40, of Surgionsville, Tenn., has been indicted in U.S. District Court on charges of wire fraud and money laundering in connection with a loan she secured under an $800 billion Covid relief plan authorized by Congress to help small business owners to continue paying their employees during the pandemic.
According to the indictment, Bethea filed fake tax documents with the Small Business Administration in March 2021 to secure a PPP loan for $20,805.
“On the electronic application … Leslie Bethea fraudulently stated that she was a sole proprietor of a marketing consulting services business that grossed $99,865 a year when, in truth and fact as she well knew, Leslie Bethea had no business that grossed that sum,” U.S. Secret Service Senior Special Agent Thomas Whitehead wrote in a criminal complaint.
“Leslie Bethea fraudulently stated that within the last five years, she had not been convicted, pled guilty to or commenced any form of parole or probation for fraud,” Whitehead wrote. “In fact, Leslie Bethea pled guilty to and was convicted of conspiracy to commit wire fraud and wire fraud on Sept. 26, 2019 … (and) was actively serving a term of supervised release for that conviction at the time of the electronic application.”
Whitehead said in the complaint that Bethea was awarded the PPP loan without question and deposited the loan proceeds into her Knoxville bank account. She then used that money to travel to Aventura, Fla., in April 2021.
While in Aventura, Bethea “received elective cosmetic surgery services totaling $5,500” from Dolls Plastic Surgery over a three-day period, Whitehead’s complaint stated. The agent did not disclose details of that surgery in the complaint.
Bethea spent five days at the Trump International Beach Resort, a luxury hotel in Sunny Isles, Fla., while recovering from the surgery, using the Covid relief plan loan to pay the $2,834 tab, the agent wrote.
The agent wrote that Bethea lied to the U.S. Probation Office during that same time period, claiming “her only monthly cash inflow for April 2021 was $200 from her ex-husband … (and) stated ‘none’ when asked to identify any expenditures in April 2021 that exceeded $500.”another ppp loan fraud
“Bethea stated that she did not travel outside the district (of East Tennessee) without permission in April 2021, even though she had traveled to Florida to receive elective plastic surgery and stayed at a luxury hotel in Florida for five days using proceeds from the fraudulently obtained PPP loan,” Whitehead wrote.
Bethea was on federal probation after serving a two-year prison term for her role in a 2018 fraud ring in which she and “unindicted co conspirators” stole the identities of dozens of people, used “plastic card embossing machines” to create credit cards using those purloined identities and used those credit cards to pay for more than 100 flights throughout the U.S., hotel bills, restaurant trips and shopping sprees, court records show.
FBI: Drug dealer got COVID cash too
Bethea is not the only East Tennessee felon to now be accused of conning the Small Business Administration and defrauding the Covid relief plan the agency administered, records show.
Antonio Dewayne Menifee, a convicted drug dealer from Chattanooga, is also accused of submitting fake forms to the agency to garner a PPP loan for a nonexistent construction firm in April 2021. When agents in September 2021 sought to execute a search of Menifee’s home as part of an investigation into the $11,485 PPP loan he received, they discovered cocaine, a stolen gun, ammunition, plastic baggies used to package drugs, digital scales used to weigh drugs and $15,000 in drug money, FBI Agent Coley Vincent Warner wrote in a criminal complaint.
Menifee was convicted in 2002 in U.S. District Court in Chattanooga of conspiracy to sell cocaine and guns. He served roughly a decade behind bars before he was released but later wound up repeatedly violating the terms of his probation by using drugs, lying to authorities and threatening violence against his wife, records show.drug dealer ppp loan fraud indictment
Menifee was ordered back to prison in 2017 as a result of those violations and served another 27 months. It’s not clear from the court record whether he was still on federal probation when he sought and won a PPP loan in 2021.
Both Bethea and Menifee are now behind bars awaiting further court action in their respective cases.
Their cases are part of what the Justice Department has called an “epic swindle” of COVID relief funding that has taken place since Congress began authorizing money to help businesses and citizens impacted by the 2020 pandemic.
An investigation by NBC News reported last year showed as much as $80 billion of the $800 billion authorized under the PPP was doled out to fraudsters in the U.S. and abroad and used to pay for luxury cars, mansions and pricey vacations.
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