Last Updated Friday, December 17, 2021, at 5:23 PM
Every Friday, The Criminal Lawyer Group publishes a digest of the latest federal prosecutions nationally. Our goal is to keep the public informed as to recent events in federal courts around the country.
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FRIDAY, December 17, 2021
This week was quite interesting for the federal criminal courts. In Mississippi, for example, three women from Union County made their initial appearances in a federal court before U.S. Magistrate Judge F. Keith Ball to answer charges of wire fraud and aggravated identity theft. That came after a federal grand jury in Jackson returned an indictment back on September 8, 2021.
The three women, Crystal Holliday, 33, Annie J. Blalock, 62, and Ashton Crouthers, 33, all of Union County, MS, have been charged with carrying out a scheme in which they employed wire fraud and identity theft taCTICS to access bank accounts of several patrons of the Pearl River Resort in Choctaw, Mississippi.
This case is set for trial in U.S. District Court in Jackson on Jan. 24, 2022. If convicted in court, each of the women faces several dozen years in prison. The FBI and the Choctaw Police Department are investigating the case, with additional assistance from the Neshoba County Sheriff’s Department and the Union Police Department.
Lots of Defendants Held Accountable for Ripping Off Taxpayers
A large number of cases this week involved people being held accountable for theft from taxpayers and the government. For example, there is a New Jersey case in which a former Amtrak employee from Ocean County, Jose Rodriguez, 49, pled guilty to charges for stealing chainsaws and chainsaw parts from Amtrak, then turning around and selling them for personal profit.
The charges were announced by the Acting U.S. Attorney for the District of New Jersey, Rachael A. Honig, and Rodriguez pled guilty by videoconference before U.S. District Judge Zahid N. Quraishi. Rodriguez was previously charged via complaint in March 2021 with one count of theft from an agency receiving federal funds and one count of theft of government property.
According to documents supporting the charges, Rodriguez had been an Amtrak employee since October 2007. Between about March 2012 and about July 2020, Rodriguez obtained 114 chainsaws, 122 chainsaw replacement bars, and 222 replacement chains from Amtrak, with a total value of more than $76,000.
He allegedly obtained them under the false pretense that this equipment would be used for Amtrak projects, but then sold the equipment either on an online auction service or directly to purchasers.
Also this week, in Texas, a Houston-based federal grand jury returned a superseding indictment, which was unsealed on Dec. 15, which charged four people with charges related to their fraudulent application for and acceptance of millions of dollars in forgivable PPP loans guaranteed by the SBA under the CARES Act, which was intended to benefit the victims of the COVID-19 pandemic.
According to court documents, the four defendants, including Hamza Abbas, 29, Khalid Abbas, 55, Abdul Fatani, 55, all of Richmond, Texas; and Syed Ali, 53, of Sugar Land, Texas, conspired with others to submit more than 80 false and fraudulent PPP loan applications by falsifying the number of employees and the average monthly payroll expenses of the applicant businesses. In total, the defendants sought over $35 million in PPP loan funds and obtained approximately $18 million in PPP loan proceeds.
On the same day, this time in the Middle District of Pennsylvania, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Middle District of Pennsylvania announced that on Dec. 13, 2021, Jonathan Olivetti, 41, who is a licensed attorney in Philadelphia, had been charged via criminal information with wire fraud in connection with a scheme to obtain COVID-19 pandemic relief money he was not entitled to receive.
According to the criminal information provided by the U.S. Attorney, John C. Gurganus, it is alleged that between June 18, 2020, and February 2021, Olivetti applied for at least two Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans and two Economic Injury Disaster Loans (EIDL) on behalf of his firm, Olivetti Law, LLC. Both loan programs were authorized by Congress under the CARES Act, to provide financial assistance to businesses and individuals who have suffered financial harm due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Unfortunately, Olivetti is alleged to have made numerous false statements during the application, and he also inflated the size of the payroll of his firm as part of the applications. Because of those misrepresentations, Olivetti received more than $40,000 in PPP loans and a forgivable EIDL loan of about $60,000.
This week featured several cases intended to hold accountable those who stole from the government’s efforts to make people as whole as possible after the coronavirus pandemic hit and injured millions financially. On Dec. 16, three people from Middlesex County, NJ were arrested for their roles in using fraud to obtain more than $2 million in federal Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans and Economic Injury Disaster Loans (EIDL).
Those three defendants, Arlen G. Encarnacion, 35, and Kent Encarnacion, 28, and Jacquelyn Pena, 36, all residents of Perth Amboy, New Jersey, have been charged collectively with 11 counts of bank fraud, three counts of wire fraud, and two counts of money laundering. Pena is also charged in a separate complaint with one count of bank fraud and two counts of money laundering. They all made their initial appearances by videoconference Dec. 16 before U.S. Magistrate District Judge Leda Dunn Wettre.
Bank Fraud and Money Laundering Charges
Former Postal Worker Charged with Taxpayer Theft
Along the same general lines is a case in the Southern District of Texas, in which a former postal worker named Tranese Nicole Mitchel, 35, of Houston has pled guilty to four counts of theft of public money. The charges and the guilty plea were announced by the Acting U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Texas Jennifer B. Lowery.
When she worked for the U.S. Postal Service, Mitchel served as a lead sales and service clerk in Houston. On Dec. 13, she admitted to having issued fraudulent refunds by creating no-fee postal money orders she then cashed against her drawer at the post office where she worked.
In all, Mitchell fraudulently issued and cashed a total of $29,947.30, which she admitted having used for her own benefit. U.S. District Judge Andrew Hanen accepted the plea and set sentencing for April 11, where Mitchell faces up to 10 years in prison and a fine of as much as $250,000.
Accountability for Human Trafficking
Also happening on he same day in the Southern District of Texas was a case in which two Mexican men have admitted to their roles in a conspiracy involving smuggling non-Americans into the United States. At least one death occurred as a result. The two men are Fabian Hernandez, 29, and Emmanuel Ferral-Tonche, 19, both of Nuevo Laredo, Tamaulipas, Mexico, and both pled guilty before U.S. Magistrate Judge John Kazen on Dec. 13.
According to documents filed in court, on June 9, 2021, Hernandez and Ferral-Tonche marched a group of more than 20 people through the hot brush of south Texas. Even though some were unable to keep going, none were never offered water or other relief by either Hernandez or Ferral-Tonche.
Cases Involving Firearms Violations
On Dec. 14, the Acting U.S. Attorney for the District of New Jersey, Rachel A. Honug, announced that a man from Union County, NJ had made his initial appearance on a charge of possession of a firearm by a convicted felon. Miguel Aviles, 47, of Elizabeth, New Jersey, has been charged by complaint with possessing a firearm after a conviction for a felony, which is prohibited.
According to documents filed with the court in this case, on Aug. 27, 2021, two victims reported to Elizabeth police that Aviles had pointed a gun at them, threatened to shoot them, and then fired the weapon, all inside the victims’ home. Two others inside the residence confirmed hearing the shot. If convicted in court, Aviles faces up to ten years in prison and a fine of up to $250,000.
The next day, Dec. 15, 2021, the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Louisiana, Duane A. Evans, announced that Percy Smith, 43, of New Orleans, LA, had been arrested on Dec. 10 and charged in a two-count indictment for his alleged participation in a weapons violation on June 19, 2021 and on June 30, 2021.