Florida companies Kingwood Orlando Reunion Resort LLC (Orlando Reunion) and Kingwood Crystal River Resort Corp. (Crystal River) have agreed to settle allegations that they violated the False Claims Act (FCA) and the Financial Institutions Reform, Recovery and Enforcement Act (FIRREA) by knowingly providing false information in support of a Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loan forgiveness application submitted by Crystal River.
Congress created the PPP in March 2020, as part of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, to provide emergency loans to small businesses suffering economic hardship due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The CARES Act authorized these businesses to seek forgiveness of the loans if they spent the loan funds on eligible expenses, such as payroll. When applying for forgiveness of PPP loans, borrowers were required to certify the truthfulness and accuracy of all information provided in their applications. A PPP recipient seeking loan forgiveness based on the payment of wages was only entitled to forgiveness for the amount of wages actually paid to its employees during the designated period.
Here, Orlando Reunion and Crystal River, which are related but operate separate resorts, both received separate PPP loans. The United States alleged that Crystal River sought forgiveness of its PPP loan, in-part, by certifying that it used a portion of its PPP loan to pay wages of Crystal River employees, when in fact, some of the employees to whom it claimed to have paid wages were actually Orlando Reunion employees whom Crystal River did not employ or pay. As a part of the settlement announced today, Crystal River and Orlando Reunion agreed to pay $271,720 in damages and penalties under the FCA and $53,280 in civil penalties under FIRREA.
“PPP loans were intended to help small businesses retain employees and keep their doors open during the pandemic,” said Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General Brian M. Boynton, head of the Justice Department’s Civil Division. “The department is committed to holding accountable those who knowingly and improperly sought PPP loans or forgiveness of those loans.”
“A primary mission of the United States Attorney’s Office is protecting government programs from fraud,” said U.S. Attorney Roger Handberg for the Middle District of Florida. “We will continue to hold accountable those who abuse the CARES Act and PPP Program at the expense of the taxpayers.”
“This settlement demonstrates that attempts to wrongfully obtain loan forgiveness will not go unnoticed, and violators will be identified,” said Special Agent in Charge Amaleka McCall-Brathwaite of the Small Business Administration Office of the Inspector General (SBA OIG) Eastern Region. “I want to thank the Department of Justice and our law enforcement partners for their support and dedication to pursuing justice in this case.”
The settlement resolved a lawsuit filed under the qui tam or whistleblower provision of the False Claims Act, which permits private parties to file suit on behalf of the United States for false claims and share in a portion of the government’s recovery. The qui tam lawsuit was filed by the former Director of Human Resources for Kingwood resorts and is captioned U.S. ex rel. Falzarano v. Kingwood International Resort, LLC, et al., Dkt. No. 6:20-cv-976-ORL-37EJK (M.D. Fla.). The whistleblower will receive a total of approximately $46,000 in connection with the settlement.
The resolution obtained in this matter was the result of a coordinated effort between the Civil Division’s Commercial Litigation Branch, Fraud Section, and the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Middle District of Florida, with assistance from the SBA’s Office of General Counsel and the SBA OIG.
This matter was handled by Trial Attorney Jared S. Wiesner of the Civil Division and Assistant U.S. Attorney Jeremy R. Bloor for the Middle District of Florida.
On May 17, 2021, the Attorney General established the COVID-19 Fraud Enforcement Task Force to marshal the resources of the Department of Justice in partnership with agencies across government to enhance efforts to combat and prevent pandemic-related fraud. The task force bolsters efforts to investigate and prosecute the most culpable domestic and international criminal actors and assists agencies tasked with administering relief programs to prevent fraud by, among other methods, augmenting and incorporating existing coordination mechanisms, identifying resources and techniques to uncover fraudulent actors and their schemes, and sharing and harnessing information and insights gained from prior enforcement efforts. For more information on the department’s response to the pandemic, please visit https://www.justice.gov/coronavirus.
Tips and complaints from all sources about potential fraud affecting COVID-19 government relief programs can be reported by visiting the webpage of the Civil Division’s Fraud Section, which can be found here. Anyone with information about allegations of attempted fraud involving COVID-19 can also report it by calling the Department of Justice’s National Center for Disaster Fraud (NCDF) Hotline at 866-720-5721 or via the NCDF Web Complaint Form at: https://www.justice.gov/disaster-fraud/ncdf-disaster-complaint-form.
The claims resolved by the settlement are allegations only. There has been no determination of liability.
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