A COVID-19 fraud task force run in part by the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Middle District of Florida in Tampa indicted more than 21 people last year for attempting to illegally collect more than $15 million in federal relief funds.
Those indictments bring to 77 the total number of fraud cases totaling $85 million that federal prosecutors locally have brought against defendants who have tried to scam the federal government out of relief funds set aside for people in need during the pandemic.
To date, the justice department says, 56 have already been convicted, and 21 are still waiting trial.
In addition to the prosecutions, the office’s asset recovery division and other agencies have completed the forfeiture of more than $20 million in fraudulently attained funds. And more than $18 million in fraudulent proceeds have been seized and are pending civil or criminal forfeiture.
The U.S. Attorney’s office for the district released the numbers Wednesday to update the continuing work of the COVID-19 Fraud Enforcement Task Force in the area. This task force is a joint operation between the office’s criminal, asset recovery, appellate and civil sivisions, along with federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies.
The task force’s job is to find, prosecute and convict those committing fraud as well as to claw back ill-gotten funds meant to help people and businesses suffering through the pandemic. This assistance came in the form of the Paycheck Protection Program, Economic Injury Disaster Loans, the Main Street Lending Program and Unemployment Insurance as well as other programs.
The federal task force was created in 2020 but the Middle District was already prosecuting COVID fraud cases.
Among the cases prosecutors highlighted were that of 44-year-old Cape Coral resident Denis Casseus, who was sentenced in October to two years in federal prison for bank fraud in a PPP loan scam that government officials say netted nearly $300,000.
And that of 37-year-old Vitalii Chychaso, who was sentenced by a Tampa judge in November to eight years in federal prison for running websites that sold personal names, dates of birth and Social Security numbers belonging to individuals in the US. Chychaso is Ukranian and was arrested in March 2022 while attempting to enter Hungary. He was extradited a few months later.
The list of cases in the district that was put out by prosecutors runs 10 pages and includes the prosecutions of individuals whose frauds were as low as $18,000 and as high as $10.7 million.
In a news release announcing its progress, U.S. Attorney Roger Handberg said his office “continues to pursue, investigate, prosecute and recover money from those who were engaged in major or sophisticated fraud schemes designed to steal benefits intended for Americans coping with the myriad impacts of the pandemic.”
Handberg was a bit more forthcoming about his feelings in a 2022 interview with the Business Observer, saying that despite all he’s seen in his years as a prosecutor “there are times where the conduct I see makes (me) angry because these are well meaning programs that were designed to help people during a pandemic.”
“And there’s a group of individuals, and it’s a small group, you’ve always got to keep that in mind and keep that in context, but there’s a small group of people who want to take advantage of it. And that’s not right.”
The Middle District is one of three judicial districts in Florida, and its coverage runs from Naples north to Ocala, then east, across Orlando, and north again to Jacksonville. The other two federal districts are south in Miami and north in Tallahassee.