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Nearly 40 people in Wisconsin have been charged for defrauding COVID funds


See the list of people and their charges below. A public hotline is available for reporting fraud.

By Hina Suzuki, THE BADGER PROJECT

During the pandemic, the federal government distributed a massive $4.2 trillion in various funds. Some of those funds were stolen. One estimate puts the amount in the hundreds of billions of dollars.

Now, the government is trying to reclaim at least some of those stolen funds, and prosecute the thieves.

In August 2023, the Department of Justice announced it had charged over 3,000 defendants across the country with offenses related to COVID-19 fraud and seized over $1.4 billion in relief funds. 

In Wisconsin, federal prosecutors have charged nearly 40 people with crimes related to fraudulently obtaining COVID-19 funds.

The exact amount of stolen relief funds is unclear, but a 2023 analysis conducted by the Associated Press estimated nearly $300 billion was illegally obtained from COVID-19 relief funding. 

Most came from temporary programs established by the Coronavirus, Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act, also known as the CARES Act, a $2.2 trillion economic stimulus bill launched in 2020 during the Trump administration, according to the Associated Press. Those programs were intended to aid small businesses and unemployed workers affected by the economic fallout of the pandemic. 

“People have to come to grips with what happened, its scope and scale and how sophisticated [COVID-19 fraud] was to the point where it drew bad players and actors from overseas,” said Seto Bagdoyan, a director of the Government Accountability Office’s Forensic Audits and Investigative Service team. “The very sophisticated fraudsters were committing frauds across states, countries and programs too, so many of these schemes will take years to unravel and make their way through the judicial process.”

Fraud cases in Wisconsin

Below is a list of people who have been prosecuted for pandemic relief fraud by the United States Attorney’s Office for the Western and Eastern Districts of Wisconsin.

The Small Business Administration implemented the Paycheck Protection Program, or PPP, in April 2020 to help small businesses maintain their payroll and pay other costs including mortgages, rent and utilities. The Economic Injury Disaster Loan, or EIDL, was established to help businesses during the pandemic.

Both U.S. Attorney’s Offices in Wisconsin said they will continue to work on prosecuting people for defrauding COVID-19 relief funds. 

Ahmad Kanan

Ahmad Kanan of Madison was sentenced to 42 months in federal prison and ordered to pay $147,060 in restitution for CARES Act fraud and access device fraud, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office of the Western District of Wisconsin. Kanan applied for two PPP loans using a false spelling of his name and indicating that he was not under indictment when, in fact, he had been charged with access device fraud in an unrelated case. Kanan pleaded guilty in both cases in 2020.

Olivia Spellman

Olivia Spellman of Janesville was indicted with seven counts of mail fraud for her alleged involvement in a scheme to collect UI benefits, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Western District of Wisconsin. She used the names of other individuals to obtain more than $500,000 from ten states. Spellman pleaded guilty to one count on Oct. 11, 2023, and was sentenced to 16 months in prison. She was ordered to pay $506,097 in restitution. 

Sharon Johnson

Sharon Johnson of Madison was charged with two counts of wire fraud and one count of money laundering related to applications for PPP and EIDL, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office. Johnson received $109,773 as a result of the fraudulent applications in which she provided false information regarding a company incorporated by her in 2018, according to a press release from the U.S. Attorney’s Office of the Western District of Wisconsin,. Johnson pleaded guilty to one count of wire fraud and one count of money laundering. In June, she was sentenced to three months in prison and was ordered to pay $109,733 in restitution. 

Eric Upchurch 

Eric Upchurch of Madison was charged with five counts of wire fraud and one count of money laundering in July 2023, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office. Upchurch obtained over $400,000 as a result of the wire fraud in which he provided false information and concealed some material facts for PPP loan applications, the U.S. Attorney’s Office alleges. A trial date is yet to be set. 

Stephen Smith

Stephen Smith of Milwaukee received over $600,000 in small business COVID loans through applications to an insured financial institution on behalf of three different companies, according to a press release by the U.S. Attorney’s Office of the Western District of Wisconsin. Providing false and misleading statements about the companies’ respective payroll expenses, Smith directed his co-conspirators to send him portions of the funds. Smith pleaded guilty to bank fraud in 2021 and was sentenced to three years in prison. He was also ordered to pay $397,500 in restitution. 

Thomas Smith 

Thomas Smith of Pewaukee admitted receiving over $1.2 million in PPP loans through applications to an insured financial institution on behalf of eight different companies, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office of the Western District of Wisconsin. Smith made numerous false and misleading statements of the companies’ payroll expenses and directed his co-conspirators to send him portions of the funds. Smith pleaded guilty to one count of bank fraud on February 23, 2021 and was sentenced to 57 months in prison. He was ordered to pay $960,000 in restitution. 

Chad Schampers 

Chad Schampers of De Pere was charged with one count of wire fraud and one count of money laundering in 2022 for filing a fraudulent PPP loan application seeking about $300,000, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office of the Western District of Wisconsin.  

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Nikki Brown

Nikki Brown was sentenced to 33 months in federal prison for stealing nearly $500,000 in unemployment benefits, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office of the Western District of Wisconsin. Brown recruited third parties to file fraudulent federal unemployment claims in six different states and convinced people to give her their personal information to file false and fraudulent unemployment claims. Nikki pled guilty to one count of wire fraud. 

Milwaukee street gang the Wild 100s

Members of a Milwaukee street gang known as the Wild 100s, 30 in total, were charged for their role in a scheme involving millions in fraudulently obtained pandemic unemployment insurance benefits. The funds were used to solicit murder for hire and to purchase firearms, controlled substances, jewelry and vacations, according to a press release from the U.S. Attorney’s Office of Eastern District of Wisconsin. Two of the members, Ronnell Bowman and Ronnie Jackson, are accused of arranging and executing a murder for pay in April 2021. 

The charges against the following 27 defendants have been revealed as the indictment is unsealed, while the charges against three additional defendants remained sealed pending their arrests.

  • Ronnell Bowman
  • Michael Anderson
  • Joel Blake
  • Byron Claypool
  • Javonte Cotton 
  • Ladarius Davis-Hughes
  • Larry Echols 
  • Demetrius Exum 
  • Larry Hamilton
  • Vernell Hamilton 
  • Akeem Hudson
  • Ronnie Jackson
  • Calvin Kidd
  • Marcus Malbro
  • Deautris Mattison
  • Quevon McKinnie
  • Chase Nanez
  • Andrew Portis
  • Maurice Rittman
  • Ramon Savage 
  • Timothy Scott
  • Keorie Smith
  • Kejuaun Thomas
  • Lawrence Turner
  • Chazz White
  • Jalen Williams
  • Jaquan Wright

Unemployment Insurance fraud 

The Government Accountability Office estimates that as much as $135 billion of the total amount of unemployment benefits paid – about 15 percent – was illegally claimed. The unprecedented demand for benefits and the need to quickly implement new programs increased the risk of improper payments, including those due to fraud, according to the Government Accountability Office. 

“At the peak of the pandemic, with people losing their jobs, the Department of Labor and the state workforce agencies that channeled the unemployment insurance benefit were trying to get money out as quickly as possible, and that was done almost exclusively by removing to relaxing the controls they had in place,” Bagdoyan said. “If you remove controls, there’s an inverse relationship to risk.”

Wisconsin reported incurring $39.3 million in fraudulent UI pandemic benefit overpayments and has recovered 11% of the amount, or $4.3 million, according to Bagdoyan.

To report the theft of COVID-19 funds, call the National Center for Disaster Fraud at 866-720-5721 or email disaster@leo.gov.

The Badger Project is a nonpartisan, citizen-supported journalism nonprofit in Wisconsin.


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This article first appeared on The Badger Project and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

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