(STL.News) – A North Carolina man pleaded guilty today to perpetrating three schemes between March and July 2020 connected to the COVID-19 pandemic, through which he defrauded consumers and the federal government’s relief programs.
Brandon Lewis, 34, of Greensboro, North Carolina, pleaded guilty to a criminal information charging two counts of wire fraud and one count of making false statements to the Small Business Administration (SBA) before U.S. District Judge Catherine C. Eagles of the Middle District of North Carolina. Sentencing has been scheduled for Nov. 30, 2020 before Judge Eagles.
“Brandon Lewis today admitted to a wide range of brazen schemes specifically designed to profit illegally from the COVID-19 pandemic by defrauding scores of frightened consumers and small business owners desperate for a financial lifeline,” said Acting Assistant Attorney General Brian C. Rabbitt of the Justice Department’s Criminal Division. “The department and our law enforcement partners will continue to aggressively pursue and hold accountable those who seek to illegally exploit the ongoing national emergency for their own personal benefit at the expense of hardworking Americans and businesses.”
“In the midst of a pandemic and as the economy suffered, this defendant lined his pockets by cheating online customers, small businesses, and, ultimately, all taxpayers. Stealing from people seeking basic health and cleaning supplies while under stay at home orders, and from entrepreneurs struggling to keep their businesses afloat, may be the nadir of fraudulent conduct,” said U.S. Attorney Matthew G.T. Martin of the Middle District of North Carolina. “I commend the excellent coordinated efforts of IRS Criminal Investigation, U.S. Postal Inspection Service, the Small Business Administration Inspector General, and the Treasury Inspector General. We will aggressively investigate and prosecute anyone who tries to profit by preying on people during this pandemic.”
“This is another example of greed controlling one’s actions. In a time of crisis and vulnerability in our country, Mr. Lewis promised assistance and help, but delivered more heartache and anxiety,” said Special Agent in Charge Matthew D. Line of the IRS-Criminal Investigation (IRS-CI). “I am proud of the way IRS-Criminal Investigation and our law enforcement partners quickly responded to these selfish criminal acts. We are committed to rooting out those seeking to defraud the hard-working citizens of this country during this pandemic.”
“The U.S. Postal Inspection Service will remain vigilant in bringing to justice anyone that seeks to defraud individuals during this pandemic,” said Inspector in Charge Tommy D. Coke of the U.S. Postal Inspection Service (USPIS) Atlanta Division. “These schemes highlights the importance of collaboration with our law enforcement partners to investigate and stop those seeking to take advantage of innocent victims.”
“It is unacceptable to defraud small businesses that are struggling during these unprecedented times,” said Special Agent in Charge Kevin Kupperbusch of the SBA’s Office of Inspector General (OIG)’s Eastern Region. “Our office will relentlessly pursue fraudsters that use SBA’s programs for greed and personal gain. I want to thank the Justice Department and our law enforcement partners for their dedication and pursuit of justice.”
“In the midst of this pandemic, anyone who attempts to engage in illegal activity will be aggressively pursued,” said J. Russell George, Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration (TIGTA). “Our mission at TIGTA is to protect the integrity of the nation’s system of tax administration. We will continue to work with the IRS Criminal Investigation Division, the Small Business Administration Office of Inspector General, the Postal Inspection Service, the Department of Justice, and other law enforcement partners in this effort.”
As part of his guilty plea, Lewis admitted that he created the so-called “COVID-19 Relief Fund,” which he purportedly managed and oversaw as president and founder of Lewis Revenue Group LLC. Lewis promised desperate small business owners “guaranteed funds” of between $12,500 and $15,000 in exchange for an upfront “reservation” fee of between $995 and $1,200. Lewis falsely claimed that “the fund has up to $250 million available for small businesses” and provided a link for applicants to “purchase a reservation now.”
Lewis also created the so-called “American Relief Fund,” offering $5,000 grants to “every American affected by COVID-19.” Lewis promoted these “relief funds” through sophisticated marketing and social media campaigns, even using the official trademarks and logos of purported corporate sponsors without their permission. In reality, Lewis never had or distributed any funds through the “COVID-19 Relief Fund” or “American Relief Fund.” Between April and May 2020, Lewis defrauded small business owners of more than $100,000 through this scheme.
Lewis also admitted that, in mid-March 2020 as COVID-19-related stay-at-home orders across the United States began, he set up a website called “www.homekitchengoods.com,” for the online store, “Home Kitchen Goods,” where he claimed to sell pandemic-critical goods such as hand sanitizer, disinfectant wipes, paper towels, and toilet paper. In fact, however, during the five days between March 20 and March 24, 2020, Lewis received over 8,500 orders totaling more than $400,000, but never had or delivered any of the promised goods.
Lewis further admitted that, between April 1 and June 19, 2020, he lied to the SBA by fraudulently applying for and obtaining multiple loans and advances under the SBA’s EIDL program. Specifically, Lewis purchased more than 35 “aged, off-the-shelf” corporations, and then submitted approximately 68 fraudulent loan applications and non-refundable grant “advances” of up to $10,000 through the SBA-EIDL program.