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4 plead guilty to PPP fraud

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Four people pleaded guilty on Tuesday to obtaining nearly $5 million in fraudulent loans through the federal Paycheck Protection Program, according to a news release from the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of South Carolina.

They are Lori Hammond, 53, of Summerville; Catherine “Cassie” Needham, 36, of Manning; Jontrell Wright, 35, of Holly Hill; and Christopher Conrad, 39, of Holly Hill.

According to the release, the four fraudulently obtained $4,721,638.50 in PPP loan funds.

The Payment Protection Program is one of the programs put in place in 2020 by the federal government to help businesses who were struggling because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Evidence showed that from in or around June 2020 through around January 2021, Hammond caused multiple materially fraudulent PPP loan applications to be submitted to federally insured financial institutions on behalf of herself and her co-conspirators. She used the identity of a deceased individual in the applications, misrepresented the number of employees and payroll expenses of the entities seeking the loans, attached fraudulent tax documents and made numerous other false and misleading statements, according to the news release.

As part of the conspiracy, the release said Hammond assisted Needham, Conrad and Wright by filling out the loan application documents with materially false and fraudulent information and then submitting them to an individual in California, who would in turn submit the fraudulent loan applications to financial institutions in exchange for a fee. Based on the false information on the applications, the approved PPP lenders funded the loans.

After the funds were deposited into the respective accounts, Hammond, Wright, Needham and Conrad used the funds for non-qualifying, non-business purposes, including the purchase of homes, property, cars and other personal purchases.

The defendants all face a maximum penalty of 20 years in federal prison, plus fines of up to $250,000, restitution, and three years of supervision to follow the prison term. U.S. District Judge David C Norton accepted their guilty pleas and will sentence the defendants after receiving and reviewing a sentencing report from the United States Probation Office.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) investigated the case. Assistant U.S. Attorney Emily Limehouse is prosecuting the case.

The Attorney General established the COVID-19 Fraud Enforcement Task Force in May 2021 to marshal the resources of the Department of Justice along with agencies across government to enhance efforts to combat and prevent pandemic-related fraud.

Report allegations of attempted fraud involving COVID-19 by calling the Department of Justice’s National Center for Disaster Fraud (NCDF) Hotline at 866-720-5721 or via the NCDF Web Complaint Form at https://www.justice.gov/disaster-fraud/ncdf-disaster-complaint-form.

Reach Christina Lee Knauss at 803-753-4327.

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