Perhaps “New Jersey man” is trying to give “Florida man” a run for his money. We’ve covered a large number of stories here about people who attempted (often successfully) to fraudulently steal COVID relief money from the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP). Most of them had one thing in common. They learned about the system and constructed an at least slightly plausible back story and submitted documentation to support their applications before receiving their checks. Some of them clearly would have gotten away with it had they not gotten too greedy and began living lavish lifestyles of the rich and famous, raising the suspicions of people who knew them. That doesn’t seem to be the case with Bernard Lopez of Sayreville, New Jersey, however. He did manage to score payments totaling more than $480,000 from Uncle Sam, but the way he handled the money and tripped himself up had all the makings of a script for a Jim Carrey movie. (NY Post)
A New Jersey man was sentenced to over 2 years in federal prison for stealing over $481,000 in COVID relief funds, authorities announced on Thursday…
He was arrested in Florida in July 2020 following a multi-agency investigation before he was returned by officials to New Jersey.
In addition to prison time, Lopez was sentenced to three years of supervised release and ordered restitution of $137,000 and forfeiture of $481,502, officials said.
In June of last year, Lopez applied for $481,502 in PPP relief on behalf of his struggling business, Pezlo Management, LLC and his 25 employees who would lose their jobs without the federal government’s help. But unlike some of the other aspiring thieves we’ve covered here, Lopez didn’t even bother filling out the forms to set up a phony corporation. He just made the name up out of thin air and sent in the request. But he did go so far as to set up a “corporate” bank account in the name of Pezlo Management.
Showing just how much work the government has been putting into protecting these programs from fraud, someone approved Lopez’s request almost immediately and sent out the first check. He then went to deposit the check in his new account. But not being satisfied with his ill-gotten gains, Lopez decided to “alter” the check he received to cash in a bit further and make it easier to deposit. The bank caught on to the altered check relatively quickly, but not before Lopez had transferred the money into another account and withdrawn it all.
Of course, the account he transferred it to was in his own name with his address of record associated with it. Let’s just say that the bank didn’t need to hire Sherlock Holmes to put the pieces together. They reported the information to federal authorities, and yet it somehow took them more than a month before the “multi-agency investigation” was complete and they managed to track him down and arrest him. That may not be a case of incompetence, but rather a symptom of how overworked the system is because so many people are ripping off these programs.
Lopez was eventually sentenced to 30 months in prison. He also received three years of supervised release and was ordered to pay restitution of $137,000 and forfeiture of $481,502. Good luck getting that money back for the taxpayers. It sounds like it’s already long gone.
It’s good that they caught Lopez and will put him away for a while, but this is yet another reminder of just how much of this is going on and how many people almost certainly are not getting caught. If this guy hadn’t been such an utter bonehead, tipping off the bank by handing them a government check with the figures on it altered, he could readily have slipped away with the cash. As we’ve discussed here previously, the number of people filing fraudulent claims for government COVID relief is through the roof. Some analysts estimate that up to 15% of the total money paid out has gone to bogus recipients. And it could be even higher than that.
We can have a chuckle about people like Mr. Lopez who set themselves up for failure in numbskull fashion and give ourselves a pat on the back because justice is being served. But how many people out there with IQs that are at least slightly above room temperature have cashed in this way? And will the majority of them ever be caught? These are questions that the federal government needs to think long and hard about before they start the next round of programs giving away “free money” to help the unwashed masses.