MIAMI — A South Florida couple claiming to be farmers working the land on two tiny suburban lots as they raked in federal COVID-19 relief funds pleaded guilty Monday to a fraud scheme.
Latoya Stanley and Johnny Philus hauled in more than $1 million in Small Business Administration loans while lying that they were struggling to operate not only a couple of nonexistent suburban farms but also a beauty supply store and an auto leasing business, according to authorities.
Their SBA loan applications were a fiction, the North Miami couple admitted in federal court. Each faces up to five years in prison June 2 before U.S. District Judge Marcia Cooke.
Stanley, 38, and Philus, 33, were arrested in August and charged with committing wire fraud and making false statements when they applied for SBA loans under a federal program that provides financial assistance to businesses ailing from the impact of coronavirus pandemic.
As in a dozen similar federal fraud cases filed during the pandemic, the two defendants’ SBA loan applications were approved by a local bank before being guaranteed by the federal agency. The couple claimed they operated businesses with dozens of employees and payrolls of millions of dollars — before their four loan applications were approved. The bank, which reviewed their Paycheck Protection Program and Economic Injury Disaster Loan applications, was not identified in a criminal complaint.
“In actuality, the complaint alleges that Stanley and Philus employed no one and the farms did not exist,” according to the U.S. attorney’s office.
In their government loan applications filed in May and June, Stanley and Philus claimed to operate two businesses — Dream Gurl Beauty Supply and Elegance Auto Boutique — out of a duplex building on one-sixth of an acre at 1275 NE 118th St.
State records show that both businesses were inactive. However, the beauty store said it had 18 employees with $200,000 worth of inventory, while the auto business said it had 29 employees and leased a fleet of 40 to 50 cars worth $1 million, according to a criminal complaint filed by federal prosecutor Brooke Watson.
Stanley also claimed she ran a “farm” at 1275 NE 118th St., and Philus said he operated another “farm” at 535 NW 127th St., another small residential lot in North Miami.
Dream Gurl received a Paycheck Protection Program loan of $302,860 to cover payroll guaranteed by the SBA, and Elegance Auto received a PPP loan of $538,325 also secured by the federal agency, according to the complaint.
In addition, Stanley’s purported farm received an Economic Injury Disaster Loan for $137,500 to cover other business expenses, and Philus’ farm received $150,000 under the same program.
Just after the pandemic struck a year ago, Congress allocated nearly $650 billion for SBA-guaranteed loans to American businesses to cover employee payrolls and other expenses such as rent — loans issued by banks and forgiven by the government if used for the right purposes.
But the program has been exploited by certain applicants, authorities said, including a Miami man who pleaded guilty in February to falsifying paperwork to obtain $4 million in SBA loans for his moving company. He spent a chunk of the money on a Lamborghini.