The federal government handed out hundreds of billions of dollars in emergency business loans during the COVID-19 pandemic, including giving away small fortunes to people who didn’t qualify for them, authorities admit.
Take Andre Lorquet, who federal prosecutors say pretended to be a certified tax preparer and falsely claimed a handful of businesses were struggling during the pandemic. The 38-year-old Miami man ended up spending the millions he got from the government on exotic sports cars, from a couple of Teslas to a Lamborghini, according to a new indictment.
Lorquet is the latest person among dozens charged in South Florida with scamming the system during the pandemic, prosecutors in the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Miami said.
Lorquet applied for federal relief loans totaling $4.7 million, completing falsified IRS forms with bogus revenue, payroll and other information through his company, Miami ENT LLC, between June 2020 and November 2021, prosecutors allege in the indictment. Lorquet received almost the entire loan amounts he asked for — $4.4 million — all approved by lenders and guaranteed by the Small Business Administration under the massive pandemic relief program.
But instead of spending the money the right way on payroll and other overhead costs, prosecutors say, Lorquet went on a luxury-car shopping spree, South Florida-style, scooping up a Tesla Plaid, a Tesla Model S, a Lamborghini Urus and a Porsche Panamera GTS.
The indictment, accusing him of a scheme to “unjustly enrich himself,” charges Lorquet with four counts of wire fraud, four counts of money laundering and one count of aggravated identity theft. If convicted, he faces up to 22 years in prison.
Lorquet had his first appearance in Miami federal court on Tuesday, according to prosecutors in the U.S. Attorney’s Office. His case was listed on the court’s website, but no defense attorney was listed for him.
Prosecutors said in a news release that Lorquet “fraudulently” obtained the COVID-19 relief loans under the SBA’s Paycheck Protection Program, the Economic Injury Disaster Relief Program, and the Shuttered Venue Operator Grant. Under these programs, if the loans were used by businesses for legitimate purposes, such as payroll and lease expenses, then they would be forgiven.
But that wasn’t the case with Lorquet’s applications, according to Homeland Security Investigations.
The COVID-19 business relief programs have been so riddled with fraud that the U.S. Department of Justice designated South Florida and two other regions of the country to take the lead in cracking down on the nationwide problem.
After losing billions of dollars in pandemic relief funds due to phony claims, the U.S. government started deploying investigative teams in South Florida, California and Maryland in September to zero in on criminal organizations that are suspected of stealing from public programs offering small business loans as well as unemployment insurance.
The federal strike-force teams were picked in these states not only because they have experienced significant relief fraud during the pandemic, but they also boast the resources to help combat the escalating problem across the country.
The number of prosecutions and losses have been staggering over the past two years.
To date, Justice Department officials say prosecutors have brought criminal charges against more than 1,500 defendants nationwide, with relief fund losses exceeding $1.1 billion and seizures surpassing $1.2 billion. Additionally, prosecutors have launched civil probes of more than 1,800 individuals and entities that applied for pandemic relief loans totaling more than $6 billion.
As the nation’s No. 1 fraud capital, South Florida has led the financial crime wave that followed the passage of the CARES Act, according to federal prosecutors.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office in South Florida has charged more than 80 COVID-19 relief cases, mostly involving the Paycheck Protection Program program, making it the nation’s leader in such prosecutions. Those schemes account for loan requests totaling about $250 million, with applicants such as Lorquet receiving ill-gotten funds, prosecutors said.
In South Florida, criminal cases have included a businessman using PPP money to buy a $318,000 Lamborghini, a nurse who lied about his business to get $474,000 that was used in part to pay a Mercedes-Benz lease and child support, and a North Miami suburban couple who claimed to be farmers to qualify for $1 million in relief benefits.