FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. (AP) — Seventeen Florida sheriff’s deputies appeared in court Thursday on charges that they stole about half a million dollars in pandemic relief funds.
The Broward County deputies, who are charged separately, are accused of a range of crimes, according to court records. Most are charged with wire fraud, which carries a sentence of up to 20 years in prison, though one deputy is charged with conspiracy to commit wire fraud, which has a maximum sentence of five years.
The eight law enforcement deputies and nine detention deputies have been suspended, Sheriff Gregory Tony said during a news conference. He said his office is going through the legal process of firing them.
“At the end of the day, they will be gone,” Tony said.
The deputies collectively defrauded the Paycheck Protection Program and the Economic Injury Disaster Loan program out of about $500,000, said Markenzy Lapointe, the U.S. attorney for the southern district of Florida.
“No matter the amount, we will not allow limited federal tax dollars, which were intended to provide a lifeline to small businesses as they struggled to stay afloat during the economically devastating pandemic lockdown, to be swindled by those who were employed in a position of trust and cast aside their duty to uphold and abide by the law,” Lapointe said.
Tony said his office began investigating the agency’s 5,600 employees in late 2021 after learning that pandemic relief fraud was an emerging trend within public service agencies and receiving a tip that some of his employees might have participated in fraud. Broward Sheriff’s Office investigators found about 100 employees who had applied for COVID-19 relief loans and eventually turned the investigation over to the U.S. attorney’s office and the Federal Reserve Board.
“For five years, I’ve maintained an organization committed to transparency and accountability,” Tony said. “I will continue to expect integrity and commitment to excellence from every BSO employee.”
Lapointe said his office continues to investigate possible fraud.
The Paycheck Protection Program involves billions of dollars in forgivable small-business loans for Americans struggling because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The money must be used to pay employees, mortgage interest, rent and utilities. It is part of the coronavirus relief package that became federal law in 2020. The Economic Injury Disaster Loan program is designed to provide economic relief to small businesses that are experiencing a temporary loss of revenue.