Raleigh woman is 3rd in Triangle to plead guilty this year for COVID-19 relief fraud

A Raleigh woman is the latest Triangle resident to plead guilty in federal court to taking part in a nationwide fraud scheme using money intended for economic relief during the COVID-19 pandemic, the Department of Justice said Thursday.

Shakeerah Kaneisha Yvette Vinson, 32, pleaded guilty Thursday to conspiracy to commit wire fraud for fraudulently obtaining a Paycheck Protection Act, commonly known as PPP, COVID-19 loan for her real estate broker business.

Vinson faces up to 20 years in prison for the charges.

“This defendant, along with her network of co-conspirators, took taxpayer money meant to help struggling small businesses during a global pandemic,” U.S. Attorney Michael Easley of the Eastern District of North Carolina said in a news release. “We are investigating and prosecuting those who steal from public programs intended to keep legitimate businesses afloat.”

Vinson conspired with several other people in North Carolina to obtain a fraudulent PPP loan for her business, prosecutors say.

Vinson is the third Triangle resident in 2023 to plead guilty for charges related to a nationwide scheme orchestrated by a Texas couple that helped people across the country commit over $15 million in PPP fraud.

The couple, Edward Whitaker and Schunda Coleman, pleaded guilty for the charges in North Carolina federal court in January this year. They face 20 years in federal prison, The News & Observer reported previously.

Fraud in the PPP program has been rampant in the U.S. since the federal government rolled out the $800 billion relief program meant to support small businesses who couldn’t afford to pay their employees in the pandemic.

At least $80 billion of that amount has been stolen by fraudsters, NBC reported.

“The Small Business Administration, in sending that money out, basically said to people, ‘Apply and sign and tell us that you’re really entitled to the money,” Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz, the chair of the Pandemic Response Accountability Committee, told NBC. “And, of course, for fraudsters, that’s an invitation … What didn’t happen was even minimal checks to make sure that the money was getting to the right people at the right time.”

How the scheme worked

The two other Wake County residents who pleaded guilty this year were Albert Eugene Miller Jr., 58, and Jonathan Fleming, 60, who pleaded guilty in February to wire fraud charges in the same scheme that Vinson participated in.

Cary resident Quentin Jackson, of Cary, pleaded guilty in this scheme last November after committing over $4 million in PPP fraud.

The Texas couple behind the overarching fraud effort created bogus documents and applications for the PPP loan, which they provided to Vinson in exchange for 25% of the total loan proceeds, according to the Eastern District of North Carolina.

The fraudulent application faked the number of Vinson’s employees and gross wages paid before the pandemic.

Whitaker showed Vinson how to make it seem that she was paying PPP loans to her supposed employees when she was really paying herself.

Vinson’s loans were then forgiven completely by the Small Business Administration after she submitted the bogus payroll records.

“Through our partnership with the U.S. Attorney’s Office and our federal law enforcement partners, IRS Criminal Investigation Special Agents will continue to aggressively pursue individuals who try to exploit federal relief programs for their personal gain,” said Donald Eakins, the Internal Revenue Service’s Criminal Investigation Special Agent in Charge in Charlotte.