Seven defendants, including three who had worked for JetBlue Airways, have pleaded guilty to stealing $1.5 million from a federal pandemic-relief program for small businesses, prosecutors said.
The defendants, from Queens and New Jersey, each face up to 20 years in prison. They have agreed to forfeit the COVID-19 Economic Injury Disaster Loan funds that they fraudulently obtained in 2020 and luxury watches and automobiles, the prosecutors said.
JetBlue computers were used to submit some of the loan applications, according to the criminal complaint.
Orlando Sanay, Keily Nunez, Michael Pimentel Veloz, Fanny Plasencia, Ramon Osvaldo Pena and Angel K. Colon each pleaded guilty to a charge of conspiracy to commit wire fraud in connection with false statements that they made to obtain EIDL loans from the U.S. Small Business Administration. The statements included false claims that the businesses in need of help had employees and 2019 revenue, the complaint states.
Nunez's twin, Keimi, pleaded guilty to wire fraud.
All seven are scheduled to be sentenced later this year in Brooklyn federal court.
The defendants stole “from a government program designed to help struggling small businesses and families survive the pandemic,” said Breon Peace, U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of New York, which includes Long Island.
The plea deals are part of a nationwide effort by federal prosecutors and investigators to combat widespread fraud in COVID-aid programs. EIDL has the highest percentage of projected fraud: up to $86 billion out of $350 billion in total loans, or nearly 25%, according to SBA’s Office of Inspector General.
Among the seven defendants, only the lawyers for Pena and Colon responded to requests for comment. Pena, 39, of Maywood, New Jersey, "has acknowledged responsibility for his actions and is hopeful [the federal judge] takes into consideration all of the significant positive aspects of his life at sentencing,” said his attorney Todd A. Spodek.
Colon, 39, of Garfield, New Jersey, "was a minor participant" in the crime, "which the government has acknowledged," his attorney Joshua Stevens said on Thursday. "Mr. Colon is hopeful that the judge during setencing will consider [Colon's] unblemished life up to this point."
A JetBlue spokesman did not respond to requests for comment this week.
Sanay, 41, of Elizabeth, New Jersey, and Keimi and Keily Nunez, both 42, of Queens, were employed by JetBlue during April-November 2020 when they and the other defendants sought EIDL loans for at least 10 businesses, according to the complaint. A year ago, a federal prosecutor told Newsday that Keily Nunez no longer worked for the Queens-based airline.
In one instance, Sanay applied for an EIDL loan using a JetBlue computer in July 2020. The loan application was for Sanay Venture Capital LLC, which he said employed 26 people and had revenue of $839,000 in 2019. But government records show the business, which Sanay said he owned, has no employees and never filed a tax return, according to the complaint.
Sanay Venture received $139,400 from the SBA, the complaint states.
The defendants used the EIDL funds for personal expenses unrelated to the businesses, including a home purchase, overdraft fees on a bank account and medical bills. Sanay made a car payment to BMW Financial Services in September 2020 using some of the Sanay Venture loan, said Angel Martinez, a special agent for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
Separately, federal investigators have been given more time to pursue fraud in the EIDL program and another COVID-relief initiative, the Paycheck Protection Program loans.
Last month, President Joe Biden signed into law two bills that extend to 10 years the statute of limitations for civil and criminal fraud charges involving EIDL and PPP loans. “My message to those cheats out there is this: You can't hide,” the president said on Aug. 5. “We're going to find you. We're going to make you pay back what you stole."