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FBI agent speaks to Rotary about COVID relief fraud
COVID scam -  Bill Roach, Joelle Vehec at podium.jpg
FBI special agent Joelle Vehec talks at the podium, while Assistant U.S. Attorney William “Bill” Roach listens during last week’s meeting of The Rotary Club of McMinnville.

Porsha Bush couldn’t get enough of a good thing.

Bush, a Knoxville-area woman who styled herself as a church elder and show runner for an apostle, bishop and prophet, pleaded guilty last August to federal charges of fraud against the U.S. government while illegally collecting $547,286 in COVID relief funds.   

She was allowed to remain free while awaiting sentencing in U.S. District Court. According to prosecutors, she used that temporary freedom to file even more lying applications for taxpayer money.

“The judge noted she was brazen in submitting fraudulent applications even while she was awaiting sentencing,” FBI special agent Joelle Vehec told The Rotary Club of McMinnville on Thursday. The defendant was immediately taken into custody and sent off to serve 57 months in federal prison. She was also ordered to pay restitution and a fine.

Bush was one of thousands of fraudsters plundering the U.S. taxpayer and living the good life, making high-dollar purchases at Dillard’s, Best Buy, Massage Envy, Doordash and Maids Inc, court record show.

“She got bolder and bolder in applying for loans” from the $2.2 trillion COVID Aid, Relief and Economic Recovery Act program enacted by Congress in early 2020, Vehec said. One of Bush’s applications under the CARES Payroll Protection Program claimed an employee who was family member serving a life sentence in prison for murder.

The Small Business Administration, one of the major conduits for the $813 billion PPP, estimated it was hit by more than 70,000 “potential fraud cases,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Bill Roach told the Rotary audience. Those cases may have amounted to $4.6 billion lost to U.S. taxpayers through fraud, he added.

Roach and Vehec, both from the Department of Justice’s Eastern Division of Tennessee, shared podium time at the weekly Rotary luncheon at First Presbyterian Church. Trey Hamilton is U.S. Attorney for the district, which has main offices in Knoxville and Chattanooga and which covers Warren County. 

The country faced an economic meltdown as COVID wiped out much of the usual business activity and paychecks dried up. So Congress wanted to push mountains of money out the door as quickly as possible, often sacrificing the usual financial safeguards in the hope of averting a disease-induced depression.  

“There wasn’t a lot of close review of the applications” for CARES payouts, including the conditionally forgivable loans intended to preserve jobs, Roach told Rotarians.

The vast majority of the requests for financial support were honest and legitimate, he emphasized. But that fraction of applications from COVID bandits cost the taxpayers dearly.  

Some of the ill-gotten gains wound up buying “luxury goods, tracts of land, boats … plastic surgery,” the federal prosecutor stated. Bush’s Doordash purchases “were not of the $15 sort but more like $50,” he commented.

How do the authorities ferret out acts of fraud? Very often, officials are tipped off by a “change in lifestyle,” Vehec explained.

Answering questions from the Rotary audience, Roach predicted that the Department of Justice will continue pursuing COVID fraud cases “over the next couple of years … maybe three years or to the expiration of the statute of limitations.”   

That gives law enforcement up to five years to bring suspected felons to justice.