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STEPHEN HEMELT — No mercy for those who steal during pandemic

There needs to be a special place in the world of prosecution for those who seek to profit off the misery of others.

Specifically, I’m referring to COVID-19 and part of the government’s response, which included the Paycheck Protection Plan authorized by the CARES Act providing emergency financial assistance to millions of Americans suffering the economic effects caused by the pandemic.

With more than $600 billion made available in the U.S., you can imagine how opportunistic scumbags responded. You guessed it, they schemed to line their pockets with wads of fresh cash to support lavish expenditures and high-rolling lifestyles.

The U.S. Department of Justice Criminal Division drew attention to these efforts Thursday in announcing more than 50 people who allegedly committed fraud to obtain funds from the Paycheck Protection Plan had been charged.

This is where I stop to remind myself and readers that a charge does not mean guilt, and everyone deserves their day in court.

With that being understood, I’m more concerned with the allegations than the individual names. It’s the audacity that bothers me so much, knowing family members of mine and many close to me are suffering some of the worst financial hardships of their lifetime due to COVID-19.

One of the more attention-grabbing headlines made last week by the Justice Department was the arrest of Josh Bellamy, a veteran NFL wide receiver implicated for his role in the alleged scheme to defraud $24 million in COVID-19 relief.

Bellamy, who was cut by the New York Jets Sept. 8, signed a two-year, $5 million contract last year.

What is he accused of using the PPP money on?

  • Spending $62,000 at the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel and Casino.
  • Spending more than $100,000 for purchases at Dior, Gucci and various jewelers.
  • Withdrawing more than $302,000.

Other accused lowlifes committed their alleged crimes closer to home.

In June, Fahad Shah of Collin County, Texas, was charged with wire fraud, false statements to a bank and money laundering.

An indictment alleges Shah submitted fraudulent applications for more than $3 million in PPP loans, claiming to have more than 120 employees earning wages when, in fact, no employees worked for his business at the time.

Shah ultimately received more than $1.5 million and used the money primarily for personal purposes, including purchasing a Tesla, engaging in personal investments and making home mortgage payments, the indictment said.

Unfortunately, the dishonesty also took place in Jefferson County, where Beaumont engineer Shashank Rai is alleged to have sought more than $10 million in forgivable Small Business Administration loans to support his 250-plus employees, when no employees worked for his purported business, prosecutors say.

According to court documents, materials recovered from the trash outside of Rai’s home included handwritten notes reflecting an investment strategy for the $3 million sought from a second lender.

Information from the U.S. Attorney’s Office highlights the most maddening part of the deception.

“When thieves and fraudsters steal CARES Act funding, they steal from all of us — the corner store, the dry cleaner and the local grocer,” a statement read.

When conduct like the kind alleged occurs, officials stress, it depletes the pool of available funds for businesses with legitimate needs, such as payroll for workers.

According to some reports, as many as 80 percent of loan applicants were turned away due to funds not being available.

A number like 80 percent is the worst part. You and I know deserving and hard-working Americans in that total were cheated out of a lifeline that is likely to never come again.

May there be a special place in prosecution for those who plead or are found guilty. For you are truly deserving.

Stephen Hemelt is president of Port Arthur Newsmedia. He can be reached at stephen.hemelt@panews.com or 409-721-2445.