California Agricultural Companies and Their Owner Agree to Pay $600,000 to Settle False Claims Act Allegations Relating to Improperly Inflated Paycheck Protection Program Loans
Four California agricultural companies and their owner 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 submitting false information in support of Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loan applications. Mendota Land Co., Sweetwood Farm Co. LLC, Sweetwood Farm Inc., Seasholtz Co. LLC, and their owner John Seasholtz (collectively, “Seasholtz”) are alleged to have improperly inflated the employee headcount on the companies’ PPP loan applications by impermissibly including non-employee contract workers who were, in fact, employed by other, unrelated entities. The settlement resolves allegations that the inclusion of non-employees caused Seasholtz to receive approximately $1.8 million in excess PPP funds. Seasholtz previously repaid the excess PPP loan funds to the lender, thereby relieving the U.S. Small Business Administration of liability for approximately $1.8 million in loan guarantees. As a part of the settlement announced today, Seasholtz agreed to pay approximately $400,000 in damages and penalties under the FCA and approximately $200,000 in civil penalties under FIRREA.
“PPP loans were intended to provide critical relief to small businesses,” said Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General Brian M. Boynton, head of the Justice Department’s Civil Division. “The department is committed to pursuing those who knowingly obtained PPP or other COVID-19 assistance funds to which they were not entitled.”
“Paycheck Protection Program funds have helped qualified businesses throughout the Central Valley that were negatively impacted by the pandemic,” said Phillip A. Talbert for the Eastern District of California. “The U.S. Attorney’s Office invested significant time and resources in this investigation and will continue to do so to ensure that PPP funds only go to those who are eligible.”
“Providing accurate information when applying for the SBA’s vital disaster relief programs is the individual responsibility of the applicant,” said Special Agent in Charge Weston King of Small Business Administration (SBA) Office of Inspector General (OIG)’s. “This settlement demonstrates that wrongdoing will find its way into the open, and those responsible will be held accountable. I want to thank the U.S. Attorney’s office and our law enforcement partners for their support and dedication to pursuing justice in this case.”
Congress created the PPP in March 2020, as part of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act, to provide emergency financial support to the millions of Americans suffering economic hardship due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The CARES Act authorized billions of dollars in forgivable loans to small businesses struggling to pay employees and other business expenses. When applying for PPP loans, borrowers were required to certify the truthfulness and accuracy of all information provided in their loan applications, including their number of employees and average monthly payroll.
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 Bell Hill LLC and is captioned United States ex rel. Bell Hill, LLC v. John Seasholtz, et al., No. 1:20-cv-942 (E.D. Cal.). There has been no determination regarding the amount of the recovery to be paid to Bell Hill LLC.
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 Eastern District of California, with assistance from the SBA’s Office of General Counsel and the SBA Office of the Inspector General.
This matter was handled by Trial Attorney Jared S. Wiesner of the Civil Division and Assistant U.S. Attorney Emilia P. E. Morris for the Eastern District of California.
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, and there has been no determination of liability.