Husband and Wife Plead Guilty to Fraud in Connection with Disaster Relief Fund
Wifredo A. Ferrer, United States Attorney for the Southern District of Florida, and Karen Citizen-Wilcox, Special Agent in Charge, U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), Office of Inspector General Investigations Division, Southeast Region, announced that defendant Yaima Perez, 28, and her husband Sergio Perez, 49, both of Homestead, pled guilty today to an eleven-count indictment that charged them with fraud in connection with a federal disaster relief fund. More specifically, the defendants pled guilty to one count of conspiracy to defraud the United States, in violation of Title 18, U.S.C § 286, four counts of filing false claims, in violation of Title 18, U.S.C. § 287, four counts of wire fraud, in violation of Title 18, U.S.C. § 1343, and two counts of aggravated identity theft, in violation of Title 18, U.S.C. § 1028A(a)(1) and (c)(5).
Sentencing has been scheduled for August 8, 2012 before U.S. District Judge Cecilia Altonaga. At sentencing, the defendants face a maximum statutory sentence of up to 10 years in prison on the conspiracy charge, up to five years in prison on each count of filing false claims, up to 20 years in prison on each count of wire fraud, and a mandatory consecutive sentence of two years on each count of aggravated identity theft.
In June 2006, in the aftermath of hurricanes Katrina, Ophelia, Rita and Wilma, the Emergency Agricultural Disaster Assistance Act was enacted. Pursuant to the provisions of this Act, the USDA Commodity Credit Corporation was established to provide up to $95 million in benefits through various programs to producers. One such program was the 2005 Hurricanes Nursery Program (Nursery Program). The Nursery Program was to be administered by the Farm Service Agency (FSA) within the USDA and was to provide financial assistance to qualifying commercial ornamental nursery and fernery producers who suffered inventory losses and incurred clean up costs as a result of the above-listed hurricanes. Certain counties in Florida, including Miami-Dade County, participated in the Nursery Program.
According to statements made in court and documents filed in the case, on March 7, 2007, Yaima Perez was elected to the FSA County Office Committee (COC) in Homestead, and became a part-time federal employee. Her husband Sergio Perez owned a nursery business, Plantas Ornamentales, and both owned and operated Perez Pizza & Bread in Homestead. In 2007, the Perezes, using the identities of others, filed numerous claims under the Nursery Program falsely claiming that the nurseries purportedly owned by these producers had sustained damage from Hurricanes Wilma and Katrina. The claims were fraudulent and the application contained fraudulent supporting documentation, including false certificates of nursery registrations from the Florida Department of Agriculture, direct deposit forms, and powers of attorney.
According to documents filed in the case and statements made in court, the USDA paid these false claims, and the payments were deposited into accounts opened and controlled by Yaima Perez. From these accounts, more than $500,000 was subsequently wire transferred to a Costa Rican company, Sunshine Bay, which Sergio Perez formed in Costa Rica. Sergio Perez also admitted that he transferred approximately $700,000 that he received from various farmers who had received benefits from the Nursery Program to Costa Rica to purchase land. Approximately another $100,000 was transferred between these accounts and also to accounts for Perez Pizza & Bread and Plantas Ornamentales.
Mr. Ferrer commended the investigative efforts of the USDA Office of Inspector General-Investigations Division. This case is being prosecuted by Assistant U.S. Attorney Lois Foster-Steers.
A copy of this press release may be found on the website of the United States Attorney's Office for the Southern District of Florida at http://www.usdoj.gov/usao/fls. Related court documents and information may be found on the website of the District Court for the Southern District of Florida at http://www.flsd.uscourts.gov or on http://pacer.flsd.uscourts.gov.