TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) – Florida residents stole the show in national pandemic relief fraud with an unusually high percentage of defendants and stolen taxpayer money.
While owners of legitimate businesses, such as Pasco County’s Cannapalooza hemp farm, are waiting for government green to get out of the red, it was seemingly easy for federal fraud defendants.
“I have literally begged and pleaded with the SBA,” Cannapalooza co-owner Marlon Santiago lamented. “Please have someone help me.”
But court documents indicate a farm that didn’t exist in Miami received $1.1 million in disaster loan and Payment Protection Plan money last year.
Miami neighbors Latoya Stanley, 38, and Johnny Philus, 33, pleaded guilty in March to stealing the money in the name of two fake farms supposedly located on their small city lots.
According to the Department of Justice, 48 of the department’s 209 PPP fraud defendants are from Florida. That is nearly 25 percent of the total.
Investigators say the Florida cases involve more than $52 million of the $246 million total – about 20 percent – from all the federal cases.
A spokesperson for the SBA has not responded to a request for comment about why Florida has more pandemic relief fraud cases than any other state.
The suspects from the Tampa Bay area include former NFL wide receiver Josh Bellamy of St. Petersburg, who is accused of illegally obtaining $1.1 million in PPP money. According to the indictment in his case, Bellamy spent more than $60,000 of that at the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel and Casino.
Bellamy is out on $250,000 bond, awaiting trial in his case.
Another suspect, 48-year-old Keith Nicoletta of Dade City, bought a brand-new Ford F-250 for $66,000 with “stolen COVID relief funds,” according to investigators.
Nicoletta, who pleaded guilty in January and is awaiting sentencing, also spent $106,000 in taxpayer money on a 2020 Mercedes for his wife, another $66,000 on jewelry and installed a $63,000 pool in his home, investigators said.
“None of the money, however, was used for payroll, as Congress had intended,” a DOJ news release said.