Third East Tennessean charged with fraud for misuse of federal COVID funds
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A Maryville woman who claimed she needed COVID emergency relief funding to keep her Christian ministry afloat instead used the money to fund a trip to Disney, buy land, two trucks and a travel trailer and pay off her student loans, court records show.
Sarrah Denton Willhite has struck a deal to plead guilty to wire fraud in connection with a Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security, or CARES, Act loan she received from the Small Business Administration last year, according to documents filed in U.S. District Court last week.
Assistant U.S. Attorney William A. Roach Jr., wrote in a plea agreement made public Friday that Willhite conned the SBA into awarding her $336,600 in Economic Injury Disaster Loan funding last year for a Christian-based recovery house that did not exist.
“It was part of the scheme that Willhite submitted an electronic loan application … on behalf of (Rescue Army Nation Ministries) that purportedly provided faith-based rehabilitation and counseling services to individuals,” Roach wrote.
Willhite claimed she employed as many as eight people at the faux ministry, which she listed as being located on Glades Road in Gatlinburg.
- Purchase of 2017 Toyota Tundra
- Two additional personal vehicles and a travel trailer
- Purchase of land in Cocke County
- Vacation to Walt Disney World
- Parent of student loans
“(Willhite) knew that statement was false, as Rescue Army Nation Ministries did not employ any individuals,” Roach wrote.
When the SBA asked Willhite to provide tax records for the ministry, she responded with “a two-page typed letter in which defendant claimed that Rescue Army Nation Ministries was a faith-based mission” and, therefore, exempt from taxation.
She followed up the letter with a fake “profit and loss statement claiming the ministry had generated $208,760 in income in 2019, of which $198,000 came from client rent payments and $2,760 from donations,” the plea agreement stated.
“(Willhite) knew that these claims were false and that she had fabricated the 2019 profit and loss statement solely for the purpose of obtaining EIDL funds to which she was not entitled,” Roach wrote.
The SBA approved the application in December 2021 and wired Willhite $336,600 as a result. Roach said in the plea agreement Willhite used the money on herself.
“(Willhite) used $47,728 of the EIDL funds to purchase a 2017 Toyota Tundra, which she registered in her own name,” Roach wrote. “Between Dec. 17, 2021, and continuing until Jan. 28, 2022, (Willhite) spent approximately all the EIDL funds on personal items or expenses, including to pay for a vacation to Disney World, to pay off her student loans, to pay taxes she owned on a different business, to purchase a tract of land in Cocke County that she titled in her own name and to purchase two personal vehicles and a travel trailer, each of which she titled in her own name. Defendant also transferred a portion of the EIDL funds to her personal checking account.”
Court records show Willhite struck a deal earlier this month to skip a grand jury review in the case and plead guilty to one count of wire fraud. She is agreeing to repay the SBA the original amount of the loan and forfeit the property and vehicles she bought using the loan proceeds.
A date for formal entry of her guilty plea has not yet been set. Once Willhite enters a plea, the case will be set for sentencing. Willhite faces enhanced punishment under federal sentencing guidelines “because (she) misrepresented that she was acting on behalf of a charitable … religious organization,” according to the terms of the plea agreement.
Willhite is the third East Tennessean to face federal fraud charges in connection with COVID relief funding in recent months. The 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.
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