Hundreds of people have been charged with stealing more than $830 million worth of COVID-19 emergency aid following a nationwide operation by federal, state and local law enforcement, the Justice Department announced Wednesday.
More than 60 defendants have alleged ties to organized crime, including gang members accused of using stolen pandemic aid to pay for murders, the department said.
“This latest action involving more than 300 defendants and more than $830 million in alleged COVID-19 fraud should send a clear message: The COVID-19 public health emergency may be over, but the Department of Justice is working to identify and prosecute Relief funds for those who stole from the pandemic are far from over,” Attorney General Merrick Garland said in a statement.
The three-month operation concluded in July with results of more than 300 people were charged,highlighting the prevalence of fraud.
“As long as we need to, we’re going to stick around,” said Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco, who hosted a meeting of law enforcement officials live on the Justice Department website.
An AP analysis published in June found that fraudsters may have stolen more than $280 billion COVID-19 relief funds; another $123 billion wasted or misused.
Most of the money came from three large pandemic relief programs designed to help small businesses and unemployed workers weather the economic turmoil caused by the pandemic. Nearly 3,200 defendants have been charged with COVID-19 aid fraud, according to the latest figures from the Department of Justice. About $1.4 billion in stolen pandemic aid has been seized.
The murder-for-hire case cited by judicial officials involved members of a Milwaukee gang known as the Wild 100s, according to court records. Federal prosecutors say they stole millions of dollars in pandemic unemployment aid and used some of the money to buy guns, drugs and pay for killings.
The federal indictment identifies the victims in the Wisconsin case only by their initials NB and does not specify how much of the looted cash was used to finance the massacre.
The Justice Department also said Wednesday it would create additional strike forces in California, Florida and Maryland to combat COVID-19 fraud in Colorado and New Jersey.
“I can’t see the end,” said Mike Galdo, the department’s acting director of COVID-19 fraud enforcement. “Based on the extent of the fraud we’ve seen, I don’t think our work is done.”